Wage theft lawsuit concludes in win for New Mexico workers

 

Judge approves final class action settlement agreement in lawsuit brought by low-wage workers against the Department of Workforce Solutions for failing to enforce New Mexico’s wage payment laws

SANTA FE – Today, after hearing public testimony, First Judicial District Court Judge David K. Thomson approved a class action settlement agreement between workers and workers’ rights organizations and the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) 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.

“This is a victory for low-wage workers and proof that when we come together, we can hold powerful institutions accountable,” said Jose “Pancho” Olivas, a member of Somos Gallup, Somos Un Pueblo Unido’s membership team in McKinley County and lead plaintiff in the complaint. “For too long wage thieves were let off the hook. Because of this settlement, DWS will not only enforce our 2009 anti-wage theft law but will do more to ensure workers have a fair shot at recouping their stolen wages.”

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.

“We all deserve to be treated fairly by our employers and paid for every hour that we work,” said Elizabeth Wagoner of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “DWS diligently worked with us on this settlement agreement to make sure that hardworking people who experience violations of New Mexico’s wage payment laws can access their legal right to an investigation of their claims and recover wages owed.”

“In 2009, low-wage workers came together to strengthen protections against wage theft in New Mexico,” said Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán, staff attorney with Somos Un Pueblo Unido’s Worker Center and co-counsel in the lawsuit. “This legislation passed both chambers with a wide margin because wage theft hurts everyone, workers, law-abiding businesses and local economies.  But our laws are only as good as the appropriate government agencies are willing to enforce them. This settlement sends a message that enforcement should be a priority.”

Now that the court has issued final approval of the settlement agreement, DWS will begin accepting requests from workers to re-investigate wage claims that DWS did not initially accept or correctly investigate. This includes workers who experienced the following problems:

  • DWS rejected or returned the claim form without investigating the claim;
  • DWS rejected, closed, or incompletely investigated the wage claim because of an unlawful $10,000 cap or one-year time limit;
  • DWS made a decision in favor of the employer for an improper jurisdictional reason;
  • DWS closed the wage claim after the employee or employer missed a deadline or hearing.

“When my sister and I went to the Department of Workforce Solutions to file our wage claims, we experienced problems communicating with the people in this office because they did not provide translation services,” said Sabina Armendariz, a low-wage immigrant worker, single mother, and member of El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos. “Now, all Spanish speakers will receive equal access to DWS services. This settlement agreement is an example of what can happen when low-wage workers organize to confront labor abuses and work to hold accountable the very government institutions entrusted with enforcing the laws. We encourage other workers to come forward and present their cases.”

Several workers plan on filing their wage theft complaints with DWS after the hearing.

“I look forward to filing my wage theft complaint along with three of my co-workers,” said Yesenia Sanchez, mother of three children and a member Somos Un Pueblo Unido’s United Worker Center. “I am happy to know that our complaints will be taken seriously and not be turned away.”

Beginning on March 16, DWS will also take several steps to notify workers about their rights, including running radio ads in English and Spanish, providing information about the wage claim process on the homepage of the DWS website, mailing notice to the class with instructions about the right to request a re-investigation, and posting notices in all DWS offices statewide.

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.

Plaintiff workers and organizations and DWS filed a joint motion on December 20, 2017 in the First Judicial District Court asking Judge Thomson to approve the class action settlement agreement.

“Language barriers should not be a reason why New Mexican workers suffer from wage theft. People with limited English language access should be kept fully informed by state government agencies such as DWS and should not have additional limitations when filing or pursuing wage theft claims. Our message is loud and clear; we will not rest until we end wage theft and labor abuses in New Mexico,” said Javier Castillo Chavez, a low-wage immigrant worker and member of El Centro who’s wage claim case was successful thanks to the new DWS regulations put in place because of the class action settlement agreement.

In addition to re-investigating prior wage claims and notifying workers of their rights, DWS has also implemented the following policies to end the practices challenged in the lawsuit:

  • LRD investigates all wage claims, regardless of their dollar value;
  • LRD takes 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;
  • LRD no longer closes wage claims for impermissible procedural reasons; and
  • LRD provides 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 has revamped 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 enforces the law, which LRD and attorneys for the plaintiffs are writing together. Attorneys for the plaintiffs will also review worker case files to identify wage claims that LRD may consider for workplace-wide enforcement action.

People who experienced a problem with a wage claim at DWS should request a re-investigation or contact:

The notice of rights, claim form, and instructions for requesting a re-investigation will be available in a link from the DWS website homepage on or before March 16.

Elizabeth Wagoner of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is lead counsel on a legal team that includes the Center’s Gail Evans, Stephanie Welch, and Juan Martinez, Santa Fe attorney Daniel Yohalem, and Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán of Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

 

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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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.

Court of Appeals Strikes Down Exclusion of Farmworkers from Workers’ Compensation

A new day dawns for agricultural workers in New Mexico! The state Court of Appeals just issued a decision that excluding farm and ranch workers from the Workers’ Compensation Act violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty has been fighting for this decision since filing our original lawsuit in District Court in 2009. Although we previously won a positive ruling from the District Court Judge, the case has been in appeal for years. Now, the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration has stated that they intend to fully enforce the decision by requiring employers to provide coverage for farm and ranch laborers.

This is a huge victory for protecting the health, safety and economic security of New Mexico’s most hardworking and underpaid laborers.

Read the Press Release here: Press-release-Court-of-Appeals-strikes-down-exclusion-2015-06-25.
Read the Court’s Opinion here: Opinion-Court-of-Appeals-2015-06-22.