Community Organizations Ask Court to Protect Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Ballot Initiative

By Elizabeth Wagoner, Supervising Attorney for Workers’ Rights

NMCLP Staff Attorney Tim Davis speaks at the May 4 press conference. Photo Credit: OLÉ

On May 4, 2017, several community organizations filed motions to intervene and motions to dismiss in a lawsuit that corporate and industry groups filed to attempt to overturn the Albuquerque Minimum Wage Ordinance (MWO) and keep the Albuquerque Healthy Workforce Ordinance off the 2017 ballot. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty represents the intervenors in this case.

The increases to the Albuquerque minimum wage passed in 2012 with the overwhelming support of Albuquerque voters. Now, almost five years later, corporate business interests seek to undercut the democratic process and invalidate the Albuquerque Minimum Wage, cutting the wages of hard working people across Albuquerque by $1.30 – from $8.80 per hour to $7.50 per hour. The corporate interests’ legal challenge to the Healthy Workforce Ordinance ballot initiative is a similarly undemocratic effort by corporations to keep Albuquerque voters, as is their right, from deciding whether workers should have the right to earn sick leave to recover from illness or care for ill family members. The corporate plaintiffs in the lawsuit do not stop there, however. They also ask this Court to take away the voters’ democratic right to propose and vote on ballot initiatives ever again.

The community organizations that fought successfully to put these important workplace rights on the ballot are now fighting once again to protect these laws. The first Motion to Dismiss asks the court to dismiss all of the challenges to the Albuquerque Minimum Wage Ordinance, and a second Motion to Dismiss asks the court to dismiss the Healthy Workforce Ordinance challenges. Both motions argue that the industry claims are flimsy, without merit, and are wholly without respect for the democratic process. 

Find the motions to dismiss here and here.

Find the motions to intervene here and here.

Lawsuit Alleging DWS Fails to Enforce Wage Protection Laws Goes Forward

SANTA FE – Today, New Mexico’s First Judicial Court ruled that a lawsuit charging that Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) must enforce state laws protecting working people against wage theft from their employers can go forward. Today’s ruling denies DWS’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. The individuals and groups who filed the case will request a final ruling from the court this summer.

Wage theft is the illegal practice of not paying workers for all of their work, including violating minimum wage laws, not paying overtime, and forcing people to work off the clock.

The lawsuit, Olivas v. Bussey, was filed in January 2017 by four workers who were victims of wage theft and workers’ rights organizations El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, New Mexico Comunidades en Accion y de Fé (CAFÉ), Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ), and Somos Un Pueblo Unido. Elizabeth Wagoner of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (the Center) is lead counsel on a 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.

“Our government should be working with us, not against us, to hold unscrupulous employers accountable when wages are stolen and our rights trampled on,” said Ibañez Guzmán. “This administration has long ignored the conditions of struggling workers in New Mexico, but our families are pushing back. It’s important that this case is moving forward so wage theft victims can be heard and the department’s disregard for the law exposed.”

“This ruling reaffirms that every hard working New Mexican – not just those with the money to hire lawyers–deserves to be paid for every hour they work,” said Wagoner. “Our state government cannot turn a blind eye when employers break laws protecting working people.”

New Mexico has some of the strongest wage enforcement laws in the country. In 2009, the legislature made them even stronger. However, DWS illegally refused to enforce these new laws and imposed onerous and arbitrary internal policies that have enabled unscrupulous employers to get away with wage theft unchecked.

“DWS’s failure to enforce New Mexico’s wage and hour laws is one more example of how hard working New Mexicans are getting the short end of the stick in our state—but they are fighting back. This case is too important to dismiss, particularly given the profound impact wage theft has on New Mexican working families. We applaud the ruling and look forward to continuing to expose systemic failures by DWS to enforce New Mexico wage and hour laws, “said Marco Nuñez, workers’ justice coordinator at El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos.

A copy of the ruling can be found here.

 Background on the lawsuit:

New Mexico’s state-level protections against wage theft include: (1) Mandatory statutory damages to victims of wage theft, calculated as full back wages, plus interest, plus double damages; (2) At least a three-year statute of limitations, or longer when the violation is part of a “continuing course of conduct”; (3) A minimum wage of $7.50 and overtime pay for hours over 40 at one-and-one-half times the employee’s regular hourly rate; (4) the department must investigate and take legal action on valid and enforceable claims filed by workers who cannot afford private attorneys.

The lawsuit charges that DWS has:

▪       illegally imposed a $10,000 cap on wage theft: they do not investigate or take any enforcement action on wage claims worth $10,000 or more.

▪       imposed an illegal one-year time limit on liability for wage theft: they do not investigate or take any enforcement action on claims for back pay that go back more than one year from the date an employee files a claim, despite the N.M. Legislature’s 2009 decision to lengthen the statute of limitations for wage claims to at least three years.

▪       illegally imposed a policy against holding employers liable for any statutory damages at the administrative enforcement phase of a case, thereby eliminating the financial deterrent for engaging in wage theft, despite the Legislature’s 2009 decision to double the penalty for engaging in wage theft.

▪       adopted policies and procedures that require the permanent closure of wage claims for procedural reasons, such as when a claimant misses a 10-day deadline, without regard to the strength of the claim or whether the claimant received notice of the deadline.

The lawsuit seeks an order that the Department of Workforce Solutions must stop applying these unlawful policies, as well as an order that the Department must re-open and investigate cases impacted by these policies.

The defendants in the lawsuit are the Department of Workforce Solutions, Cabinet Secretary Celina Bussey, and Labor Relations Division Director Jason Dean.

In January, 2017, the First Judicial District Court issued a temporary restraining order requiring the Department of Workforce Solutions to accept wage claims without regard to the Department’s illegal $10,000 cap or illegal one-year lookback period and to keep records of claims impacted by these policies.

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ACTION ALERT: Call Governor Now to Prevent Budget Cuts

Your action is needed urgently –   the House and Senate just sent a tax package today to Governor Martinez to help avert more deep budget cuts that would further slash funding for our schools, healthcare and public safety agencies. New Mexico is facing school closures and further reduction to classrooms and teachers, the elimination of certain Medicaid services for low-income families and people with disabilities, and a worsening public safety crisis from under-resourcing our courts and other key agencies.

House Bill 202 makes responsible and overdue changes to the tax code, including to level the playing field for small businesses by taxing out of state internet sellers, close up tax loopholes for certain industries, and update the gas tax so the funds can be invested into our roads.

Please call the Governor’s office at 505-476-2200. Ask her to sign HB202, and not to veto any part of it. Let her know that New Mexicans will not accept more budget cuts and that you support this tax package as a fair solution that does not hurt our families.  It will only take a minute to leave a message.

Wage Theft Lawsuit Filed Against NM Department of Workforce Solutions

NMCLP took the fight against wage theft to the courtroom today with a lawsuit against the NM Department of Workforce Solutions.

The lawsuit was filed by four workers who were victims of wage theft and workers’ rights organizations El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, NM Comunidades en Accion y de Fé (CAFÉ), Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ), and Somos Un Pueblo Unido. Elizabeth Wagoner of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) is lead counsel on a legal team that includes NMCLP’s Gail Evans, Tim Davis, Santa Fe attorney Daniel Yohalem and Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán of Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

Read the filed complaint HERE.

JUST IN: Judge Signs Temporary Restraining Order on Printing of November Ballot

District Judge Alan Malott signed a Temporary Restraining Order this afternoon preventing the Clerk of Bernalillo County from printing ballots for the November 8, 2016 general election without a summary of the Healthy Workforce Ordinance until further Order from his court. A hearing on this matter will take place on Monday, September 12, 2016 at 4:00 p.m.

The Temporary Restraining Order can be found here.

Complaint Filed to Add Summary of Healthy Workforce Ordinance on 2016 Ballot

healthy-workforce-abq-logoToday, attorneys with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief requesting a court order to put the summary of the Healthy Workforce Ordinance on the 2016 general election ballot. The complaint named as defendants the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. Both the City and the County failed to fulfill their legal obligations to send this question to the voters in November.

The summary of the Healthy Workforce Ordinance reads as follows:

Proposing to enact the Albuquerque Healthy Workforce Ordinance such that, beginning 90 days after enactment: First, Albuquerque employers must allow employees to accrue sick leave at the rate of one hour of leave per 30 hours worked. Second, employees may use sick leave for their own or a family member’s illness, injury, or medical care, or for absences related to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Third, employers with 40 or more employees must allow each employee to use up to 56 hours of accrued sick leave each year, and employers with fewer than 40 employees must allow each employee to use up to 40 hours of accrued sick leave each year. Fourth, employers must notify employees of their rights and maintain records. The ordinance also provides for public enforcement, a private right of action, and liquidated damages and penalties for noncompliance or retaliation.

The complaint filed in the Second Judicial District Court is available here.

NM Supreme Court Rules that Exclusion of Farm and Ranch Laborers from Workers’ Compensation is Unconstitutional

workers' rights option 1

Santa Fe, NM – Today, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that the New Mexico Constitution prohibits the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the protections of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act (Act). In holding for the workers who challenged the Act, the Court said that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers “is nothing more than arbitrary discrimination and, as such, it is forbidden by our Constitution.” Opinion at 2.

In its review of the history and purpose of the Act, the Court concluded that “there is no unique characteristic that distinguishes injured farm and ranch laborers from other employees of agricultural employers, and such a distinction is not essential to the Act’s purposes.” Opinion at 15.

New Mexico’s farm and ranch laborers are among the poorest of the working poor in our state, and consequently they cannot afford private health insurance. Their work is also very hazardous. Farm and ranch laborers work with heavy machinery, unpredictable animals and encounter harsh environmental conditions. In fact, the parties to the case agreed that farm laborers engage in dangerous work. “[A]s the parties observed at oral argument, farm and ranch laborers are engaged in a risky profession where workplace accidents frequently result from inherently unpredictable working conditions.” Opinion at 43.

Reacting to the decision the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty’s Legal Director Gail Evans remarked, “We are thrilled that New Mexico’s farm and ranch laborers have the same right to workers’ compensation as all other workers in our state.”

For more information contact: Gail Evans (505) 255-2840/(505) 463-5293 Elizabeth Wagoner (505) 255-2840 or Tim Davis (505) 255-2840

Download the full press release here.

Read the opinion from the NM Supreme Court here.

Employees file a class action lawsuit against Kelly’s Brew Pub and Restaurant for violating the Albuquerque Minimum Wage Ordinance

Kelly’s Brew Pub and Restaurant and its owners Dennis and Janice Bonfantine unlawfully helped themselves to their servers’ tips and didn’t pay servers for some of the time they worked, according to a lawsuit filed today in Albuquerque district court.

The class action complaint, filed on behalf of seven current and former employees, accuses the Bonfantines and Kelly’s of violating the Albuquerque Minimum Wage Ordinance (the Albuquerque MWO).

The lawsuit contends that after a November 2012 ballot initiative raised the Albuquerque minimum wage, Kelly’s and the Bonfantines “settled on an unlawful response to the minimum wage increase: servers would pay for it themselves, out of their tips. Starting in 2013, Defendants increased the wage rate that appeared on servers’ paychecks so that Defendants appeared to comply with the new law, but required servers to pay the house cash each shift, calculated at 2% of their total daily sales, plus $3.00 per hour they worked on the clock. After tipping out, servers sometimes owed more in cash than they had actually earned in cash tips during the shift. When this happened, servers were required to pay the difference from their wallets or their paychecks. When questioned about this ‘tip out’ policy, the Bonfantines and managers explained that Kelly’s needed the money to pay for the minimum wage increase and other business expenses.”

Furthermore, according to the lawsuit, “Kelly’s did not pay servers all of their customers’ credit card tips, and instead kept a portion of those tips for themselves. Kelly’s also did not pay servers any wages at all for non-tipped work they performed off-the-clock, such as rolling silverware, kitchen prep, and awaiting table assignments.”

The Albuquerque Minimum Wage Ordinance – which the voters approved in a November 2012 ballot initiative – prohibits these practices. The ordinance raised the minimum wage for tipped workers from $2.13 an hour to $3.83 an hour in 2013, and $5.25 per hour in 2014 and afterwards, with annual adjustments for the cost of living. Under the ordinance, tipped employees must be allowed to keep all of their tips, and employers cannot require employees to share their tips with the house or with management. The ordinance does not prohibit tip pooling among employees who receive tips, but by law management cannot participate in a tip pool. The ordinance also requires employers to pay employees the minimum wage for all hours worked, whether on the clock or off. Non-tipped employees are currently entitled to $8.75 per hour under the ordinance.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and Youtz & Valdez, P.C. The attorneys will seek to have the lawsuit certified as a class action to recover servers’ misappropriated tips, minimum wages, statutory liquidated damages, pre- and post-judgment interest, injunctive relief, costs and expenses of suit, and reasonable attorney’s fees

Elizabeth Wagoner, a staff attorney at the Center on Law and Poverty, stated, “A worker simply cannot live on two dollars an hour, especially when she can’t keep all of her tips and doesn’t get paid at all for some work time. This shouldn’t be happening anymore in Albuquerque, but the situation at Kelly’s shows that a strong minimum wage ordinance also needs strong enforcement. We applaud our partners at Youtz & Valdez for taking on this important case, and urge the Albuquerque City Attorney to engage in proactive enforcement efforts to root out other lawbreaking employers.”

Shane Youtz, a partner at Youtz & Valdez, P.C., stated, “Employers need to understand that there are real consequences to undercutting Albuquerque’s minimum wage law. Pay practices like Kelly’s simply aren’t lawful, and our firm has a long-standing commitment to fight for workers’ rights in cases like these.”

The case is Atyani et al v. Bonfantine et al in the Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque, NM.

Click here to download a pdf copy of this press release.

Click here to download a pdf copy of the Complaint.

For more information, contact the Counsel for Plaintiffs:
Elizabeth Wagoner, NM Center on Law and Poverty (512) 663-9352 (mobile)
Shane Youtz, Youtz & Valdez, P.C. 505- 244-1200 (office)

Albuquerque Journal: NM high court hears case on workers’ comp for farm/ranch workers

Republished from the Albuquerque Journal. Click here to read the original article.

By Maggie Shepard / Journal Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28th, 2016 at 12:05am

On a small New Mexico dairy farm, an employee milking a cow does not have to be covered by workers’ compensation but the person’s supervisor, who might spend the workday in the same barn with the same animals, must be covered.

It’s a legal line that state Supreme Court justices hammered as they heard oral arguments Wednesday afternoon in a heated and possibly high-stakes case about a decades-old exemption in state law the allows farms and ranches with more than three employees to exempt laborers from workers’ compensation coverage.

A 2nd Judicial District Court judge and the Court of Appeals have ruled in one case that denying workers’ compensation to this type of farm and ranch worker is unconstitutional.

Dairy and ranch industry groups’ lawyers argued that forcing workers’ compensation coverage would cost farmers tens of millions of dollars, much of which they could not recoup from product sales, which usually are in markets that have government-set price controls.

When asked for the legal justification between the two groups of employees, like in the cow example, each of the industry lawyers arguing Wednesday struggled to find an answer that didn’t seem to anger the justices.

“It might save money by excluding certain workers, but is that a rational exclusion?” Chief Justice Charles Daniels asked the lead attorney representing the dairy and cattle industries.

Justices asked questions about how such an exemption could be considered constitutional.

Gail Evans, legal director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, argued that it is not and asked the justices to uphold a lower court’s ruling as such. She said those exempted are the “most vulnerable” employees.

She also asked that the justices make any unconstitutional judgment work retroactively.

But lawyers from the state’s Workers’ Compensation Administration and Uninsured Employer’s Fund argued that would open a flood gate of cases and a bureaucratic nightmare. They asked that if necessary, a ruling apply only to future claims to not only avoid a mess of back claims but also so that industry businesses can be fully aware of any new coverage requirement.

The coverage exemption also applies to household servants and real estate salespeople.

After more than two hours of arguments from five lawyers – oral arguments usually only last about one hour – before a packed and overflowing audience, justices took the case into consideration. It is not clear when they will make a decision.