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Around 20 years ago, when a public school principalship first became an entry-level position under New York City's then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I recall being present at the time clock and witnessing one of the newly minted school leaders confronting a revered veteran teacher with an ultimatum: "You just clocked in for the after-school program which starts when the school day ends. The school day ends at 2:30 and it is now 2:30. You are double-dipping. Next time I will report you for theft of service. Consider that a warning.”
There had been no bad blood between the teacher and the principal that might explain the bizarre and petty overreaction. Menacing a worker over a few seconds is an exercise of just and rightful authority, according to the Playbook for Managers.
The experience matured me. It made me ripe for cynicism. It also cured me of any vestiges of naive belief that all workers needed to do to stay out of trouble was to do their jobs and the rest would take care of itself.
Power trips are intoxicants to shallow characters traveling in the moral wilderness of bureaucracy.
Theft of service? That's a legal term that employers have at their disposal as a tool of intimidation. It is a criminal offense. It's stealing.
When management makes productivity demands of workers beyond their contractual obligations or job description, the worker is under pressure to knuckle under, because there are indirect ways for management to enforce their will. They won't call their directives "demands,” but instead couch their orders in language that makes compliance sound optional and in the spirit of workplace partnership.
A tone with loaded phrases of gentle persuasion is a stylistic quirk of bullying employers. Although the coercion may be subtle, it is still insidious. The worker may bite their lip but will hold their tongue. They will do the boss's bidding for the sake of peace, the "big picture" and the long haul.
They do it to survive.
And thus employers steal from their workers all the time. But it's not theft of service,” which is a larceny under law. It's "wage theft,” which technically is not. And "technically" is all that matters in the real world.
It's the old story of whose ox is gored. Workers are on the hook. Employers are not. Workers owe and employers are owed. Workers are kept on a short leash with a choke collar; employers on a bungee cord that allows them to jump off the moon and not hit the earth.
The road to reciprocal rights is a cul-de-sac.
Theft of service is rare as alligators in Prospect Park. It happens, but is statistically insignificant. Theft of wages, however, is common as bacteria in the Love Canal.
For generations, nothing was done to correct it. Until now. And we have Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and State Senator Neil Breslin to thank.
District Attorney Bragg is a mixed bag. In fighting cases, he flexes iron or lets hang atrophied sinew, depending whether the salient details rendezvous with his devotions on the ideological spectrum.
To put it charitably, District Attorney Bragg is a slouch at holding slashers and bashers of innocent strangers accountable. His forte is in applying his conviction on social-economic justice to the administration of the law. And at that he excels.
He recognizes that wage theft is trivialized because under the law it does not constitute property. The classification must be updated and amplified in the interest not only of justice, but elementary common sense.
For that to happen, larceny must be called larceny. The spoils of wage theft are no less than the loot from street muggings. Assemblywoman Cruz and Senator Breslin's bill would codify wages as property under New York State law.
The Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) Act, snuffed out by faux-progressive Governor Cuomo in 2019, if revived, would allow the placement of liens on the assets of employers and discourage them from playing three-card monte with their assets and accounts.
It's too bad that legislative action is required. Here's a scenario where instant gratification should be possible. It ought to be achievable by executive order. If this is possible with border protection, pandemic safety and energy pipelines, why not with justice in the workplace?
Immigrants, home health aides, fast-food restaurant employees and workers in janitorial, construction and other industries, have been especially hard-hit by predatory employers. Undocumented migrants who have been stiffed of wages they earned by performing assigned work, have a worthy champion in Bragg.
All races, genders, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural affiliations and orientations are fair game for employer larceny. The data shows that union membership is a great protector against wage theft. But it doesn't confer total immunity.
Will compliance of independent contractors working in New York and out-of-state employers with workers situated in New York also be mandated?
Employers who commit wage theft should be penalized 10 times the actual sum they withheld or pocketed. They have traumatized their workers. Let them partake of the wealth of that trauma.
Plus reparations for their presumptive patterns of history.
Otherwise, the traditional "slap on the wrist" will persist and be absorbed by employers as just another cost of doing business.
DA Bragg's Worker Protection Unit, which is part of the Rackets Bureau, has already bared its teeth. Last week, two brothers and their company were indicted on charges of scheme to defraud and violating New York's workers' compensation laws.
One of the defendants is also accused of assault and attempted assault in the third degree and criminal mischief and menacing in the third degree. Allegedly, there was physical violence with injury, hate speech, lying to police officers and canceling paychecks before the recipient workers could deposit them.
Using his office’s new stolen sage fund, through its Criminal Justice Investment Initiative and the state Department of Labor, Bragg will "work to recoup stolen wages and debar companies from city contracts" and "enforce workplace safety labor laws.”
Sounds like a plan!
The initiatives of DA Bragg in the city and Cruz and Breslin in Albany are personally felt and passionately driven. When they come to full fruition will be a formidable weapon against employer weasels.
Wage theft, like they say about Satan, comes in many forms. These include, according to the Economic Policy Institute, abuses of minimum wage, overtime, off-the-clock and tipped wage violations as well as illegal deductions.
These crimes are not likely to be the subject of television dramas. There won't be a series called "Wage Theft, She Wrote.” City Comptroller Brad Lander notes that it "is sometimes seen as some kind of accounting error. We're not talking about an accounting error; we're talking about a crime.”
"A major crackdown to combat wage theft,” which recovered a few million dollars in restitution, was announced by Governor Kathy Hochul in July 2022. A hotline was established to report and track wage theft and recover stolen wages, but assuming it still exists, it needs to be publicized.
At last there is momentum in the city and Albany. But when injustices have been so entrenched for so long and fueled by the eternal flame of a culture of unbalanced and misaligned advantages, even a nanosecond of lost vigilance and delayed activism can be fatal to those arrayed against it.
Let's us all teach a practicum to employers about the wages of sin.
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