During a hearing in front of the state’s Committee on Labor and Public Employees yesterday, two former employees of New Haven businesses painted stark images of wage theft close to Yale’s campus.
Adin Morales and Edgar Sandoval, former employees at Gourmet Heaven and the downtown bar 116 Crown Street, respectively, testified in support of Senate Bill 914 and Senate Bill 1037. The former would require employers to pay their employees double damages in the case of wage theft, while the second bill would allow state courts to freeze an employer’s assets until the employer adequately compensates their workers.
“Enacting both SB 914 and SB 1037 would help send a message to non-paying employers that the minimum wage and overtime protections are to be enforced, and that cheating workers out of their hard-earned wages will not pay,” Nadine Nevins, an attorney who runs a free legal clinic in Stamford, said in her testimony. Nevins’s clinic has represented 633 low-wage workers over the past seven years.
According to Nevins, Connecticut is lagging behind other states in combating wage theft, but the threat of double damages created by SB 914 would pressure employers to pay their workers in a timely and just manner. This pressure is necessary because low-wage workers are often reluctant to sue their employers for unpaid wages for fear of job loss or other retaliation, Nevins said.
Sandoval, who worked at 116 Crown Street for two years, told the News that he thinks the bills will help protect workers like him in the future.
“If they have to pay double then they’re probably not going to do it again,” Sandoval said. “It’s going to be better because us working class, we need to work, but we need to get paid fairly.”
Double damages bills like SB 914 have been introduced several times in the past few years, but they have failed to pass the committee because workers did not mobilize in a sign of solidarity and support for the bill, according to Megan Fountain ’07, the lead volunteer organizer for Unidad Latina en Accion. But this year, Fountain added, more workers traveled to Hartford to testify than in previous years. Eleven workers from ULA went to Hartford in support of the bills.
Fountain said the committee was sympathetic to the workers’ testimonies yesterday, giving her confidence that the committee will pass the bill this year. Upon hearing workers’ experiences, legislators shook their heads and described the stories as disturbing, Fountain added.
Sandoval said that during his two years at 116 Crown, he worked as a dishwasher for a minimum of 60 hours a week — although he sometimes worked 100 per week — and was not paid overtime wages. Because of his job’s physical stress, he was eventually hospitalized for depression and exhaustion, after which Sandoval’s employer let him go, he said.
“I even have the text message that I got saying that it was hard for them but that they were going to have to let me go,” Sandoval said.
Nevins also highlighted the importance of SB 1037 in his testimony. The legislation would create a lien on employer’s property to secure payment of unpaid wages, ensuring that the salary collection process is expedited for workers. Nevins listed six states in which wage lien laws have been successful.
For example, SB 1037 would help ensure that Gourmet Heaven and 116 Crown Street workers reclaim their lost wages before the owners could potentially declare bankruptcy and sell their businesses.
Morales, who began working at Gourmet Heaven when he was 16, said in his testimony that he was paid only $6 an hour and no overtime while working 72 hours a week. He testified in order to ensure that his experiences do not become the norm, he said in a ULA press release.
While there was no testimony presented in opposition to SB 1037, Eric Gjede, an assistant counsel at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, testified against SB 914. He said the bill is unnecessary because judges already have the ability to enforce double damages in severe cases. Furthermore, he said, this places an undue burden on law-abiding businesses, who would rather pay double damages than go through the costly court process.
“If a business doesn’t cut its losses and settle, even when in the right, the only other option is to take on the expense of defending themselves through costly litigation,” Gjede said in his testimony.
The Committee on Labor and Public Employees reviewed 17 bills on Thursday.