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

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.

###