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Caroline Fan on April 9, 2009 - 12:09pm
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson recently signed a wage enforcement bill (H 489) to allow underpaid workers to collect their back wages plus twice that amount in damages. The bill was backed by community groups and labor unions as well as the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. New Mexico now becomes the eighth state that allows workers to collect treble damages against employers violating the minimum wage — a key deterrent to employers to ensure compliance with the minimum wage.Other states are moving forward on additional wage enforcement measures:
- Iowa: Gov. Culver signed HF 618 which increases penalties against employers who take advantage of child labor laws. The bill had previously passed both houses unamimously. The new law establishes penalties of up to a year in jail for violating child labor laws, a state fine up to $10,000 for each child labor violation (to be determined by the Labor Commissioner) and hikes the penalty for businesses who fail to pay employees their rightfully-earned wages to $500 from $100 per pay period. Furthermore the bill changes the standard from "willful" liability to "negligence." Labor penalties had been untouched since 1975. The bill is largely the result of last year's raid of the Agriprocessors poultry factory in Postville, Iowa which found 9300 instances of child labor abuses. Additionally, SB 413 has been favorably recommended out of committee and would increase transparency of employee wages and prevent employer retaliation against workers.
- California: S 9b was signed by the Governor and establishes a State Public Works Enforcement Fund in the State Treasury. The law continuously appropriates monies to the Fund for the enforcement of prevailing wage requirements applicable to public works projects and labor compliance enforcement.
- Maryland: SB 406 was adopted and expands rights and remedies for private enforcement suits under the state prevailing wage law and authorizes employees to seek compensation and additional remedies. SB 451 would increase criminal penalties for violations of certain wage and hour laws and would allow each week to constitute a separate violation. The fine for the first week would be $2500 and $5000 for subsequent violations.
- North Carolina: H 87 would establish additional positions for the state to enforce wage and hour laws, as well as occupational health and safety standards. Rhode Island: S 643 would create a private right of action against employers for misclassifying an employee as an independent contractor.
Progressive States Network has been promoting wage enforcement strategies as a fair and progressive model for dealing with the problems of the underground economy and the exploitation of all workers, including native and immigrant workers. Recently the GAO conducted a study finding that wage theft was not being properly investigated by the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour division. Now, federal priorities under the new administration are moving towards increased wage enforcement, following the lead of states like New York and California.
States can better address the underground economy by enforcing and strengthening wage and hour laws to protect all workers from unscrupulous employers who deliberately under pay or withhold wages. Here is a short rundown of model policies that states can implement to recover workers' wages and ensure better compliance with the existing minimum wage.
Progressive States Network- Promoting Wage Enforcement Laws as an Alternative to Anti-Immigrant Proposals
Government Accountability Office- Wage and Hour Division’s Complaint Intake and Investigative Processes Leave Low Wage Workers Vulnerable to Wage Theft
National Employment Law Project - Enforcement of Workplace Standards