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NEW YORK – It has been two years since New York passed the Wage Theft Protection Act, but immigrant advocates on Long Island say the law has failed to put a damper on the crime. Liz O’Shaughnessy is president and program director of the nonprofit group CoLoKi, which operates a trailer for day laborers in Freeport. She says in the last couple of months alone, more than two dozen cases have been brought to her attention.
O’Shaughnessy is not a lawyer, but she says when she is able to track down offending contractors she uses both pleas and threats to try to get them to pay the wages that are due.
“Sometimes that’s enough to scare them into paying, and that’s always a good thing, but some of these guys are savvy to the fact that they can just keep getting away with it. It’s almost like a new form of slavery.”
She has had to deal with some contractors only one time, she says, but many are repeat offenders. In her view, the tough economy seems to be making the problem even worse.
CoLoKi stands for compassion, love, kindness. The group recently started sending some of the harder-to-crack wage-theft cases to Theo Marangas, a Long Island civil attorney. She says there are plenty of fair employers, even for day laborers. But Marangas adds that those who steal wages seem to be playing the odds that the immigrant workers they take advantage of won’t have the time or the resources to seek justice.
“It’s a hard avenue for the workers to go down, because there really isn’t a whole lot that they can do to get their money back that isn’t going to cost them a lot of time – and they have to work every day just to get by.”
Marangas says the slow speed of the legal system is a universal problem, but she believes it’s especially hurtful to immigrant laborers trying to recover a day or two of pay.
“They fall victim to it a lot more because the amounts are smaller, and the time needed to use the legal system – which is open to them – is excessive.”
Marangas is upset that more of her neighbors don’t get angry about this issue; she says it’s a basic right for any worker to receive the wages they earned.