SANTA FE, NM--Dozens of workers who are owed thousands of dollars in wages by local employers held a protest today in front of the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) angry that they were were not allowed to file administrative wage claims. The action, organized by members of the United Worker Center of New Mexico (UWC), was prompted by policies enacted by DWS's Labor Director that have made it increasingly difficult for wage theft victims to recuperate stolen wages.
In a statement by the UWC, Community Organizer Lorenzo Ramirez said: "In 2009, the New Mexico Legislature passed a law to provide additional wage and hour protections to workers and to crack down on unscrupulous employers who steal from their employees. But under the Martinez administration, the Wage and Hour Division has turned away hundreds of workers from the administrative complaint process, and in many cases, has simply refused to enforce the 2009 law. This hurts working families and let's the bad apple employers off the hook."
According to the UWC, several administrative policy changes at DWS triggered the protest. The agency no longer allows workers without a New Mexico-issued driver's license or ID card to file claims. If the worker doesn't save all her paystubs or is paid in cash, they are sent away, even though it is the legal responsibility of the employer, not the employee, to keep payment records. DWS also does not allow workers to file for more than a year's worth of stolen wages or for more than $10,000.
"We have documented several instances in which workers were not allowed to file a wage claims through DWS," said Gabriela Ibanez-Guzman, staff attorney for the United Worker Center. "DWS used to be the first and best line of defense for victims of wage theft because it was accessible to all workers, and because it provided the opportunity for the worker and the employer to settle the dispute quickly, saving in legal fees and court costs. Now, many New Mexicans are left without this important tool."
"It is very troubling to me that DWS is summarily rejecting, for improper reasons, wage claims filed by workers," State Representative Miguel P. Garcia (D-Bernalillo) wrote in a letter today to the Attorney General's Office. "Even when the Department opens a wage claim, it often takes actions that effectively prevent workers from pursing their claims or recovering the full amount of their wages. This goes against the spirit of HB 489 (the anti-wage theft law passed in 2009), and New Mexico's Minimum Wage Act as whole. If the director of DWS fails to investigate and enforce our state's employment laws, hard-working New Mexico families will be vulnerable to unscrupulous employers. " For copy of Garcia's letter requesting AG opinion, click here.
Nohemi Becerra recounted her story at the Wednesday's protest: "I worked at Posa's for a year and I am owed about $1,500 in overtime wages. When I went to DWS, they rejected my claim because I presented my Mexican matricula consular to prove my identity. The matricula is accepted widely by federal agencies and at banks. DWS told me to go to Albuquerque's Federal Department of Labor instead. I am a single mother, and my child depends on my wages. I'm here today to ask the Governor to protect New Mexico's responsible and hard working families, and not to side with the wage thieves."
Ibanez-Guzman added: "Federal minimum wage statutes provide fewer protections and damages than the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act. That's why it's so important that DWS take on these cases, instead of passing them on to the federal DOL. New Mexico workers deserve better."
Enrique Hernandez, a member of the UWC said: " I worked at Cleopatra's Café for 5 years and didn't get paid for all of my hours. Cleopatra's owes me more than $50,000. When I learned my rights and went to DWS to file a claim, they said I could only file for $10,000. We're here today to demand that the state government take wage theft seriously."
The UWC turned in 500 petitions from low-wage workers immediately after the protest demanding the Governor enforce the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act and punish employers who steal wages from New Mexico's workers.