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

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.

 

Federal Court Hearing on HSD Compliance with Orders to Remove Barriers to Food and Medical Assistance on Wednesday, November 29

LAS CRUCES, NM— On Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, Judge Kenneth Gonzales will hear an update on the New Mexico Human Services Department’s compliance with multiple court orders to timely and accurately provide food and medical assistance to eligible families.

Last year, Judge Gonzales held the HSD secretary in contempt for failing to remove barriers to assistance for eligible families and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department. The Special Master recommended that HSD cease any program changes not required by federal law and that the department make changes in its management.

Despite the court orders and Special Master’s recommendations, HSD continues to improperly deny eligible New Mexicans food and medical assistance–in November of 2017, HSD had a backlog of over 17,000 unprocessed SNAP and Medicaid cases. The department has also failed to make any management changes and is proposing large-scale changes to the Medicaid program, including charging premiums and Medicaid co-pays, that are not required by federal law.

WHAT:
U.S District Court status conference on HSD compliance with court orders in Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. Brent Earnest, No. 88-385 KG/CG

WHEN:
Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE:
United States Courthouse
4th Floor, North Tower, Mimbres Courtroom
100 N. Church Street
Las Cruces, New Mexico 88001

WHO:
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorneys
HSD Secretary and Attorneys

UNM Hospital Stops Requiring Low-Income, Uninsured Patients to Pay 50 Percent Down Payment for Surgery

ALBUQUERQUE, NM–After months of intense pressure from advocates, the UNM Hospital Board of Trustees reversed a policy, implemented in May 2017, requiring low-income, uninsured patients to pay a 50 percent down payment before surgeries. As a result of the policy, the hospital cancelled many patients’ surgeries because the patients couldn’t come up with thousands of dollars upfront to repair hernias, torn knee ligaments, broken bones, and in one case, a hysterectomy.

“We are relieved that the Hospital Board of Trustees has finally decided to treat all people with the same compassion and standard of care that insured people receive,” said Michelle Melendez, director of EleValle: South Valley Healthy Communities Collaborative. “Requiring people to pay 50 percent upfront was inhumane and not consistent with the mission of our public safety net hospital, which receives $96 million per year in property tax revenue to help cover indigent patients.”

The EleValle collaborative, which is comprised of Casa de Salud, Centro Savila, and ACCESS, teamed up with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Juntos Para la Salud, and with patient navigators from Pathways to a Healthy Bernalillo County to educate the UNM Hospital Board of Trustees about the policy’s impact on low-income, uninsured residents of Bernalillo County. The Bernalillo County Commission and the state Legislative Health and Human Services Committee weighed in on the side of advocates.

“The hospital’s policies created an insurmountable barrier for low-income patients to get surgeries, impacting their livelihoods and forcing them to suffer through worsening medical conditions,” said Sireesha Manne, healthcare attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “We are grateful for the collaborative effort of community groups, patient navigators, and policymakers to hold the hospital accountable to its public mission.”

The board voted unanimously at the hospital’s board meeting on Friday to change the hospital’s Patient Payment and Financial Assistance policies. It also voted unanimously to establish a new Discount Program Policy for low-income patients living in New Mexico who meet poverty guidelines, are ineligible for Medicaid, and unable to purchase private insurance on the Health Insurance Exchange.

The new policies reinstate the hospital’s affordable down payment schedule that had been in place from 2005 until May 2017. Pathways navigators became aware of the hospital’s change in policy when clients who were seeking help with food, housing, transportation, and other basic needs disclosed that they were unable to work because of knee injuries and other debilitating medical conditions but could not afford a 50 percent down payment.

The reinstated schedule allows patients to pay $25, $75, or $300, depending on their level of poverty, upfront for surgeries that have been deemed medically necessary by their healthcare providers. The patients are then required to make monthly payments on the balance owed, which could be tens of thousands of dollars.

At the Friday meeting, Jerry McDowell, UNM Hospital board chairman, said, “There are some basic values that I think guide us: Do no harm to the patient. Consistent with our public service mission, serve all individuals with fairness, respect and dignity. Strive for best in class for quality, safety, and care. There are also legal guidelines overarching.”

Human Services Department to Hold Hearing on Medicaid Cuts on Monday, October 30

ALBUQUERQUE, NM—New Mexico’s Human Services Department (HSD) will hold a hearing on the serious cuts the Medicaid program faces in the Centennial Care 2.0 waiver proposal on Monday, October 30 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. This will be the final public hearing on the issue.

The waiver proposal eliminates important coverage and health benefits and imposes new excessive patient fees in the form of co-pays and premiums on the working disabled, low-income adults living just above the poverty line, and children enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). These fees will prevent people from seeking necessary healthcare and cause thousands of others to lose coverage.

WHAT:
HSD Hearing on the Centennial Care 2.0 Waiver Proposal

WHEN:
5:30-7:30 p.m., October 30, 2017

WHERE:          
National Hispanic Cultural Center’s Bank of America Theatre
1701 4th Street SW
Albuquerque, NM, 87102

Call in Number: 1-888-757-2790
Participant code: 991379#

WHO:

  • HSD staff
  • Abuko Estrada, attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and other groups against the waiver
  • Public Comment

Healthy Workforce ABQ to Continue Fight for Workers’ Right to Earn Paid Sick Leave 

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Healthy Workforce ABQ, the campaign behind the proposed ordinance for earned sick days, vowed today to continue its fight to ensure that all workers have access to earned paid sick leave, after unofficial election returns showed a narrow margin of 718 more votes against the ordinance.

“No one should have to choose between a paycheck and their health or taking care of a sick child,”said Andrea Serrano, Executive Director of OLE. “Throughout this campaign, we talked with workers, families, and small business owners who agreed Albuquerque workers need the right to earn sick days. But this ordinance faced great odds. Well-connected business interests undertook a campaign of misinformation that confused both the press and voters about the provisions of the law. The measure was relegated to the back of the ballot, without a summary, in illegible seven point font that many people could not read. This election doesn’t change the fact that everyone agrees Albuquerque workers should have the basic right to earn sick leave. We will continue to fight for it.”

Local community organizations have been working tirelessly to educate the public on the earned sick leave initiative since last summer, when over 24,000 voters in Albuquerque signed the petition to get it on the ballot.

“I have never had earned paid sick days. I have a child with autism, and many times I have had to choose between taking him to his medical appointments or not receiving a day’s worth of pay,” said Edgar Salinas, a low-wage immigrant worker and an active member of EL CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos. “My situation is not unique. Tens of thousands of workers are taking care of children and elderly parents. It is reprehensible that well-funded groups, driven by ideology instead of sound policy, choose to undermine working families’ ability to care for one another rather than strengthen and support the workers who are a cornerstone of the economy. We, Albuquerque’s working families, will continue to fight for our rights to support our families and strengthen Albuquerque. La lucha sigue!”

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Healthy Workforce ABQ is supported by Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLE), Strong Families New Mexico, El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos, New Mexico Working Families Party, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the Center for Civic Policy, and Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP).

URGENT! Tell Steve Pearce to Protect Federal Food Assistance!

This Thursday Congress is expected to vote on the FY 2018 House Budget Resolution, which contains harsh cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps and other poverty reduction programs. SNAP has been instrumental in helping struggling families put food on the table. But the plan envisions a total SNAP cut of $150 billion (more than 20 percent) over ten years.

If implemented, the resolution would pull the rug out beneath 464,102 New Mexicans who participate in the program, including 199,286 children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, while the wealthiest Americans and profitable corporations would get huge tax cuts.

As New Mexico’s Most Important Anti-Hunger Program, SNAP:

  • Improves the Health of Young Children – Nearly half (46%) of New Mexican children under age four rely on SNAP benefits to eat.  SNAP is proven to increase health and learning outcomes in young children by supporting brain development through adequate nutrition.
  • Supports Working Families – SNAP supports working New Mexicans.  Half of New Mexico SNAP participants are in working families. SNAP is also a critical support as New Mexico continues to have an unemployment rate that is significantly higher than the national average.
  • Boosts New Mexico’s Economy – SNAP benefits pumped $693 million dollars in the New Mexico economy. Every dollar of federal SNAP benefits spent in New Mexico generates $1.70 in economic activity.

Please call Representative Steve Pearce TODAY and urge him to oppose the house budget reconciliation.

Representatives Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Lujan are working hard to protect funding for SNAP. However, we need to make sure Representative Steve Pearce takes action to protect this critical program.

Call Representative Steve Pearce at his Washington D.C. office: (202) 225-2365.

Healthcare Repeal Effort Comes to an End, Saving Medicaid Funds for New Mexico

WASHINGTON DC— Republicans in Congress decided today to end their push on the Graham-Cassidy bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, because they do not have enough votes in their party to pass it through the Senate. Their decision comes after the Congressional Budget Office released a preliminary report yesterday that concluded millions of Americans would lose their healthcare coverage under the legislation, mostly due to significant cuts to Medicaid. The bill would have ended Medicaid Expansion for low-income adults and resulted in New Mexico losing billions of federal dollars over the next ten years.

“Medicaid has greatly improved the physical and economic health of New Mexico,” said Sireesha Manne, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “This bill suffered the same problems as older versions. It would have ripped away healthcare coverage from millions of people and permanently damaged Medicaid – a cornerstone of our healthcare system.”

The bill would have ended the Medicaid Expansion that provides healthcare coverage to more than 255,000 low-income adult New Mexicans, and resulted in New Mexico losing $9 billion federal dollars by the year 2027, according to the nonpartisan research group Avalere. The bill capped funding for the entire Medicaid program and eliminated tax credits that help people buy insurance. States would have been allowed to let insurance plans stop covering essential health benefits and to charge more to consumers with pre-existing conditions.

“New Mexico would have been forced to pay billions more in healthcare costs or slash Medicaid coverage for more than 230,000 people and cut services for the most vulnerable populations – including children, seniors, and people with disabilities,” said Manne.

The bill faced widespread opposition from state officials, consumer groups, and medical and industry groups. It also proved to be unpopular among Americans, with a CBS News Poll showing 52% of respondents disapproving the bill and only 20% in approval. A statewide poll conducted in New Mexico earlier this year by Research & Polling, Inc. found that nearly three-quarters of New Mexicans are opposed to reducing federal funding for Medicaid, and four out of five voters believe Medicaid is “important” or “very important” to residents.