If workers have earned their wages, what happens when their employers fails to pay them what they are owed?
They are victims of what is known as wage theft. Under state law, workers have the right to sue employers for unpaid wages or to file a complaint with the state Board of Labor. Now thanks to action taken by the Highland Park Borough Council on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, these employees are protected in an additional way. Council members passed an ordinance that says if businesses have failed to fulfill their fiduciary obligations, they will be unable to get a business license in Highland Park until they pay up.
The law passed unanimously, drawing applause after the votes were cast, and a round of cheers at the conclusion of the meeting.
As it is written, the ordinance adds language to the licensing procedure requiring businesses to indicate whether it ever has violated wage theft laws, and whether the incidents have been settled. Outstanding or unsettled claims are considered grounds for denying a business license.
Similar ordinances already are on the books in New Brunswick and Princeton, and are under consideration in Jersey City and Newark.
The measure enjoyed the support of Main Street Highland Park, as well as the backing of Unity Square in New Brunswick. About 30 supporters came Tuesday night from the New Brunswick chapter of New Labor, which also includes workers who live in Highland Park.
Tara Marlowe of South Second Street has advocated the measure to the mayor and council since it first was suggested in May. She explained how the issue first came to her attention when she was out to lunch with her daughter, and asked an employee for advice on an appropriate tip.
“They told me they were only getting tips, and weren’t even getting minimum wage,” she said. “I felt that was unacceptable to me, and abhorrent to the values that Highland Park embraces.”
Although undocumented immigrants may be more vulnerable to the abuses of wage theft because of their fears of deportation, the problem is more endemic to certain industries, such as food services, construction and landscaping, and roadside farm stands, said Jason Rowe, a Raritan Avenue resident who works with Unity Square in New Brunswick. Workers placed with temp agencies also are at risk.
“You’re employed by the agency, but you’re working somewhere else,” he said. “It creates a certain vulnerability.”
Sometimes wage theft cases are resolved easily and amicably by explaining the law to the employer, but other times it requires legal action.
A list of firms currently under sanction for violating the state’s wage theft laws, found on the web site of the New Jersey Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, does not name any businesses based in Highland Park.
“This is an excellent ordinance, and it needs to be passed,” said Councilman Philip George. Then he added: “I hope in the future the council will take up the issue of the minimum wage as well.”
The comment drew rapid and immediate applause from the audience.