Op-ed | We must stop wage theft that threatens New York’s working class

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Wage theft has victimized the working class for far too long. For decades, crooked contractors have flown under the radar in broad daylight and built their million-dollar bank accounts by stealing the wages of workers who don’t know their rights or are too afraid to report the crime.

The fear of being fired or blackballed for speaking up by powerful contractors has scared many of these workers silent. We must put the lives and dignity of our fellow New Yorkers ahead of contractor greed and end wage theft once and for all.

The construction industry creates thousands of jobs and builds critical infrastructure that is vital to New York’s recovery. Developers eager to squeeze every last cent of profit from their workers have unleashed an exploitation epidemic, paying their workers a quarter (if they’re lucky) of what they would make under a prevailing wage, if they’re getting paid at all.

When a worker is cheated out of their wages, we all suffer: the worker and their family have to choose between paying rent or buying food, wages across the industry are depressed, and New York City loses critical tax revenue. The fact is that wage theft is a direct threat to the stability of New York City’s economic well-being and our recovery from the pandemic.

The ripple effects of wage theft are felt not just in New York, but throughout the economy. Across the nation, workers and their families lose $8 billion a year to wage theft, and construction workers alone are robbed of $946 million annually.

A study conducted by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters also found that corrupt contractors withheld at least $811.1 million a year in overtime pay. These staggering numbers bring to light not one or two bad apples, but of a system that exploits the working class without fear of consequences.

They say that “one bad apple can spoil the bunch.” That is true with another money-making scheme used by some thieving contractors.

Wage theft goes hand-in-hand with tax fraud, which is reported on roughly 20.5% of construction sites per month. Every year, unscrupulous employers offload $3.5 billion of businesses’ employment taxes onto workers, leading to a total of $8.4 billion in state and federal tax losses.

That’s billions of dollars that should be funding local schools, infrastructure, and health care. When there are billion-dollar tax gaps like the ones left by wage theft and tax fraud, it’s the everyday taxpayer that picks up the bill. These crimes aren’t only hurting the construction industry, they are crippling entire communities.

It’s time these bad actors stop cheating the system, stealing wages out of working people’s pockets, and corrupting our entire economy.

Allies for the working class like Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member LaToya Joyner have stepped up in the New York State Legislature by introducing S.2766/A.3350 to combat this incessant violation of workers’ rights. Their bill aims to end wage theft at the top, where the liability resides. It will ensure all workers have protection when their employer tries to steal their paycheck.

Under S.2766/A.3350, wage-stealing practices will be met with legal repercussions. Construction bosses will not be able to turn a blind eye to these illegal practices and will finally be held accountable for what happens on their job sites. That accountability will lead to more extensive vetting of contractors and sub-contractors, safer worksites and workers bringing home the full wages they deserve.

Meanwhile, contractors who have done the right thing will see no change beyond finally having a shot to compete on a level playing field.

The District Council believes in the ideal that a hard day’s work gets a fair day’s pay, no questions asked. It is committed to advocating for all workers in the construction industry, both union and non-union, to ensure jobs, fair wages, and safe job sites.

Now, it’s time for the politicians in Albany to do the right thing for their constituents and pass the wage theft legislation championed by Senator Ramos and Assembly Member Joyner that protects the livelihoods of hard-working New Yorkers.

Now more than ever as we hope to rebuild back better, we must change the culture of greed and hold the bad accountable. We must pass S.2766/A.3350 and end wage theft now.

Joseph A. Geiger is the executive secretary-treasurer of the New York City and Vicinity District Council of Carpenters.

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