Settlement in lawsuit against DWS ensures enforcement of New Mexico wage payment laws

Agreement is a victory for wage theft victims

SANTA FE, NM – Today, workers and workers’ rights organizations announced a settlement agreement with the Department of Workforce Solutions that ensures state government will carry out its duty to enforce New Mexico’s strong anti-wage theft laws and hold employers accountable when they violate these laws. The workers and DWS filed a joint motion Tuesday evening in the First Judicial District Court asking Judge Thomson to approve the class action settlement agreement.

The class action settlement agreement is a win for New Mexico workers and is the result of years of work by the workers and workers’ rights organizations who advocated for passage of a 2009 law imposing stronger anti-wage theft protections, and who filed a 2017 lawsuit to require DWS to enforce those protections. The case, Olivas v. Bussey, was filed in January 2017 by four victims of wage theft and workers’ rights organizations El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos, New Mexico Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFÉ), Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ), and Somos Un Pueblo Unido. The plaintiffs claimed that DWS had failed to investigate and resolve wage claims concerning violations of New Mexico’s wage payment laws.

“Workers need state agencies like the Department of Workforce Solutions to level the playing field,” said Jose “Pancho” Olivas, a member of Somos Gallup, Somos Un Pueblo Unido’s affiliate in McKinley County and plaintiff in the complaint. “I am very proud to have joined other workers in this lawsuit to ensure that our government is doing its job and working for the people of our state. Because of this settlement, me and my wife will be able to move forward with our complaints and I know workers in other rural communities like Gallup will too. We work hard for every single dollar and will not hesitate to stand up for what is right when the stakes for our families are so high.”

Low-wage workers – who are particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by their employers – are more organized and powerful than ever. The settlement is indicative of their success in fighting the unfair practices of dishonest employers, and exercising their right to hold their government accountable.

“This settlement is a hard-earned victory for New Mexican working families, and now we will pivot to ensure this settlement, and all New Mexico’s labor laws, are being implemented correctly,” said Sabina Armendariz, an immigrant low-wage worker, single mother, and active member of El CENTRO. “We will continue organizing alongside other low-wage workers, and we will keep using everything at our disposal to fight for workers’ rights so that all New Mexicans can provide for their families.”

Under the settlement agreement, many workers whose cases the DWS Labor Relations Division (LRD) rejected for improper reasons in the past will have the right to a re-investigation of their cases. A notice explaining how workers can seek a re-investigation will be available on the Department of Workforce Solutions website once it is approved by Judge Thomson. Workers may also contact any of the plaintiff organizations for help.

“New Mexicans want to provide for their families and build financial security, and deserve to be treated fairly,” said Elizabeth Wagoner of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “DWS leadership worked diligently with us on a settlement that ensures hardworking people who experience violations of New Mexico’s wage payment laws can access their legal right to an investigation of their claims, so that they can recover wages owed.”

LRD has also taken the following steps to end the practices challenged in the lawsuit:

  • LRD will now investigate all wage claims, regardless of their dollar value;
  • LRD will take enforcement action on wage claims going back three years, or longer if the violation is part of a continuing course of conduct;
    Employers who fail to pay minimum or overtime wages must pay damages to wage claimants, calculated at three times the value of the unpaid wages, when a case reaches the administrative enforcement phase and is not resolved in settlement;
  • LRD will no longer close wage claims for impermissible procedural reasons; and
  • LRD will provide language access services to all wage claimants who need it, by requesting each claimant’s language preference on the claim form, providing interpretation in each telephonic and in-person interaction, translating all form letters and claim forms into Spanish, allowing claimants to fill out claim forms in any language, and offering an interpreter to anyone who telephones the agency.

In addition, LRD will revamp its policies and procedures so that the agency is in compliance with the New Mexico wage laws. This includes the adoption of a publicly-available investigations manual that lays out how LRD will enforce the law, which LRD and attorneys for the plaintiffs will write together. Attorneys for the plaintiffs will also review worker case files to identify wage claims that LRD may consider for workplace-wide enforcement action. In addition, the department will inform workers of their rights under the agreement, including how to file an unpaid wage claim, through several means of public notice, including website revisions, radio and social media.

Elizabeth Wagoner of the Center is lead counsel for the plaintiffs on the Olivas v. Bussey legal team that includes the Center’s Gail Evans and Tim Davis, Santa Fe attorney Daniel Yohalem, and Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán of Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

A copy of the submitted settlement agreement can be found here.
Photographs from today’s press conference in Santa Fe can be found here.
A recorded “Facebook Live” video of the press conference can be found here.

The following additional statements are from individual plaintiffs and representatives from plaintiff organizations:

“In 2009, the state legislature passed a law recognizing the harmful impact wage theft has on working families, law-abiding employers, and local economies,” said Marcela Díaz, Executive Director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido. “And when the Legislature passes a law that is supposed to give workers a fair shot at recuperating their stolen wages, we expect state agencies like the Department of Workforce Solutions to do their job. Workers will continue to ensure that this settlement is honored.”

“This is what is possible when workers come together,” said Moises Penagos Ruiz a member of Familia Unidas Por Justicia, a Somos affiliate group in San Juan County, and a class member in the lawsuit. “I believe that our state government should thoroughly investigate wage theft claims, especially if two or more workers come forward from the same workplace claiming they are victims. And now, my case, and those of my co-workers, will move forward. If DWS fulfills its role, we believe that we can eradicate wage theft once and for all.”

Photo credit: El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos

Breaking down barriers to child care assistance

by Maria Griego & Sovereign Hager

One often insurmountable barrier to financial security for many New Mexican families is the high cost of child care, this is especially true for low-wage workers. The astronomical costs prevent thousands of families with children from accessing meaningful work and educational opportunities. Unfortunately, while the number of New Mexicans who qualify for state-provided child care assistance has increased, enrollment in the program has actually declined.

We dug into the problem and found that the Children, Youth and Families Department required families to go through a torturous child care assistance enrollment process. Families automatically eligible for child care assistance because they engage in work and educational activities through our state cash assistance program (TANF) were forced to visit multiple offices to turn in unnecessary paperwork. Many families lack reliable transportation, and the frequent office visits interfered with work and school schedules, making it impossible for them to complete the process.

We also found that CYFD sent confusing and threatening letters to participating families in an attempt to illegally recoup erroneous prior overpayments of child care benefits. The letters demanded clients return money within 15 days or have their balance sent to collections. Unpaid overpayments can bar families from the child care assistance program. Families eligible for assistance often live from paycheck to paycheck and unexpected bills can cause financial distress and bankruptcy.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty reached out to CYFD and informed them that the requests for back payment were illegal. We also offered to help streamline their administrative processes to improve access to the child care assistance program, especially for the lowest income families that are automatically eligible.

CYFD agreed to stop sending the letters and accepted our proposal to drastically simplify the application process. The state also issued regulations that established a clear time frame for processing applications so families do not have to wait indefinitely for benefits if they are eligible. Since these changes were implemented, nearly $24,000 has been returned to families who were illegally changed for prior over payments and there has been a 39 percent increase in enrollment of the families already enrolled in TANF.

While this is great progress there are still far fewer people enrolled in the program than who are eligible. There’s much more work to be done. Families are still required to turn in in unnecessary paperwork and have difficulty in the application process because notices that families receive are not translated into Spanish.  Families are not informed about their right to appeal a denial of benefits.

Find out if you’re eligible for child care assistance and learn how to apply here. You can find information in Spanish here. Please spread the word!

Photo credit: freeABQimages.com

 

Proposed Albuquerque sick leave bill would benefit few workers

ALBUQUERQUE—A coalition of workers and policy advocates said today that the sick days bill introduced by City Councilors Ken Sanchez and Don Harris would leave thousands of employees unable to earn sick time to care for themselves.

“This bill would still force thousands of working families in Albuquerque to choose between a paycheck and taking earned time off to get well or care for a sick family member,” said Veronica Serrano, a member of the Healthy Workforce coalition. “I couldn’t earn sick leave at my most recent job, and this bill would do nothing to change that because any business with fewer than 50 employees won’t have to offer earned sick time–that’s 90 to 95 percent of all employers in Albuquerque.”

The coalition noted that the proposal also doesn’t cover employees who work fewer than 20 hours. “This bill would actually encourage employers to offer fewer hours to their workers,” said Ms. Serrano. “That’s not healthy for our communities.”

According to the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the law would be the weakest sick leave bill in the country. “No sick time law in the country contains as many loopholes and exclusions as this one, or makes it so difficult to earn and use sick leave,” said Elizabeth Wagoner, an attorney at the Center. “Worse, this proposal completely excludes people who must take care of sick parents, grandchildren, siblings, and other relatives. And the weak enforcement provision sends a message to unscrupulous employers that they can violate this law with no consequences.”

Despite their misgivings about the proposed ordinance, coalition members said they are ready to work on improving it. “We look forward to discussing the needs of our hardworking families with Councilors Sanchez, Harris, and the rest of the Council, so that we can create a sick leave bill that does not divide us between those who can earn sick time and those who cannot,” said Ms. Serrano.

Action Alert: Last chance to stop harmful Medicaid cuts in New Mexico

We have one last chance to stop the harmful Medicaid cuts that Governor Martinez and the Human Services Department are proposing in the Centennial Care 2.0 plan! Co-pays, premiums, eliminating retroactive coverage, and ending other important benefits will not make Medicaid better.

These major cuts will cause thousands of low-income New Mexicans to lose healthcare coverage, shift more costs to healthcare providers, and raise overall costs for our healthcare system and state budget. The cuts will also deny our children and families access to timely and appropriate care, forcing them to wait until medical conditions worsen into emergencies before seeking medical attention.

Please call and urge your networks to contact Governor Martinez at (505) 476-2200. Tell her to stop Medicaid cuts by withdrawing the proposals for premiums, co-pays, eliminating retroactive coverage, and other damaging cuts to benefits and services. Please call her this week before HSD submits its final proposal to the federal government.