Proposed New York law allows workers to pursue wage theft claims

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New proposed legislation in New York, known as the “Empowering People in Rights Enforcement (EMPIRE) Worker Protection Act,” would enable private actors to seek enforcement of wage theft claims, as reported by The Times Union on May 14, 2024.


Assembly Bill A5876A empowers labor unions, corporate whistleblowers, and individual workers to file civil claims against employers accused of wage theft and seek penalties through the court system. 


The proposed law comes as the city aims to address a backlog of wage theft complaints, empowering such individuals with some state authority and significantly expanding New York’s labor laws


Penalties collected under this system would be shared between the workers filing the claim and the U.S. Department of Labor


The agency would retain a supervisory role in these cases. 


The bill draws inspiration from California’s Private Attorneys General Act, which allows employees to file lawsuits to recover civil penalties for themselves, other employees, and the state for various labor violations.


Wage theft costs New York employees millions of dollars collectively and is said to often see claims delayed at the state Department of Labor due to insufficient staffing and legal authority to act against employers.


Arguments for the Legislation:

  • It is believed by advocates, including numerous labor unions, that the bill could generate over $100 million annually in civil penalties from non-compliant employers. 
  • These funds would help the Department of Labor reduce staffing backlogs and increase its capacity to handle more cases.
  • The legislation is also said to to potentially enable the Department of Labor to hire more state workers to enforce labor laws, including those related to wage theft and child labor which they currently lack the resources to adequately address.

Arguments Against the Legislation:

  • Opposition to the bill primarily comes from groups linked to large corporate interests, such as McDonald’s, which has been actively lobbying against it. 
  • The New Yorkers for Local Businesses, including pro-business groups Upstate United and the Business Council of New York State, warned in a letter to legislative leaders that the bill could increase the cost of living and strain the state’s court system. 
  • They also expressed concern that the act could lead to excessive litigation driven by private attorneys more interested in profit than the public good.
  • Fears also rise that the law might motivate lawyers to find potential clients and initiate profitable class action-style lawsuits without procedural safeguards and without the active involvement of the workers who are allegedly harmed.
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