New Wage Theft Law Would Target Somerville Employers
11 May 2013 - 10:34pm | superuser
by Jonathan Adams (Staff)
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Somerville, Mass. - Somerville officials are considering adopting a new ordinance that would see employers guilty of wage theft lose or fail to gain licenses and permits issued by the city.
The ordinance drafted by the city’s Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone came after Somerville residents and activists signed a petition in April seeking a public hearing by the Board of Aldermen on the issue of wage theft in the city.
The board heard testimony at the hearing at Somerville City Hall Tuesday night from members of a labor rights group Centro Presente, as well as local residents.
“The draft ordinance looks pretty good … we’re looking for something that uses any and all city powers against any companies that have been found to have committed wage theft,” said Patrick McDermott, workers’ rights organizer for Centro Presente .
McDermott explained that wage theft happens when employees are not paid in full for hours worked, and that his group often sees these issues raised by immigrants who work in restaurants, construction, landscaping, cleaning, and painting jobs.
“We’ve had quite a few cases around Somerville … in those industries that I’ve mentioned, and around Boston,” he said, “we get a few new cases every week at this office alone, and I know that the other workers’ centers around Boston [are] getting a lot.”
Aldermen asked some clarifying questions about the wage theft issue, but there was general support for a new ordinance, which could already impact at least one business operating in the city.
The subject of an ongoing case filed last October in the US District Court in Massachusetts by workers at Diva Indian Bistro near Davis Square, Somerville, against their employer, Amrik Singh Pabla, who they allege committed wage theft.
The restaurant is owned by the One World Cuisine restaurant group with an address on Newbury St., which also owns other businesses in Cambridge and Boston including Bukhara, Kashmir, Mantra, Mela, Dosa Factory, Mumbai Chopstix, Doma Liquors, and Pabla Sweet House.
The court case is being taken by a number of workers suing for back wages of $183,500 against different businesses all under the same ownership, but the Diva restaurant is the only establishment based in Somerville.
One World Cuisine declined to provide Open Media Boston with a statement regarding the public hearing when asked for comment by phone and e-mail.
Jaswinder Singh, Director of a company called Monsoon – which shares an address with One World Cuisine, and has Mr. Pabla as a director – also declined to provide a comment or speak publicly, but delivered a letter to the board from Attorney John N. Lewis, Watertown, Mass.
The letter accuses Centro Presente of making “defamatory statements” in an effort to “in their own words, ‘pressure’ our clients to pay un-adjudicated claims which are being litigated in [court].”
The letter also states that the Fair Labor Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and US Department of Labor have not found any violation of wage or hour laws at Diva.
Alderman Maryann M. Heuston (Ward Two), said that a wage theft ordinance would send a “powerful message” to employers, and that “it will help people who work in this city to know that there’s a partner in this struggle, and that partner is the city.”
She commended Centro Presente for doing the job of collecting complaints, and local activists for bringing the alleged wage theft issue at the Diva restaurant to the board’s attention, but said “that’s not as … structured as we would like it … there needs to be an arm of, an administrative arm, in this city that takes responsibility, and takes these complaints as well.”
Alderman Dennis M. Sullivan (At Large) echoed Heuston’s remarks saying “I’m appalled that this is going on in our city, it’s imperative as a board that we pass an ordinance with some teeth.”
Centro’s McDermott says his organization has had quite a few cases involving wage theft across Somerville, but that there are many more that go unreported due to fears over immigration status or because of lack of information regarding labor rights.
He said that workers often aren’t aware that their rights have been violated, because they don’t know the rules regarding the minimum wage and overtime.
“A lot of times people will come in to me, you know, when they haven’t gotten paid at all – and obviously they know that something’s wrong there – but when they show me the calculation they made of the hours that they’re owed, they’re not taking overtime into account, so yes, sometimes there’s violations that go unreported, or underreported,” said McDermott.
Interpreted by McDermott, a former employee of a unnamed construction company, Raquel DeLeon testified at the hearing that “there were seven of us women (at the company), and they didn’t pay us; we worked for them for some time [and] they ended up owing us approximately $3,700, between the seven of us; personally they didn’t pay me for 64 hours of work; that adds up to $584.”
Open Media Boston reported in December on protests outside Diva Indian Bistro following the firing of an employee there.
The report also states that One World Cuisine was sued for wage violations in 2010 by two Honduran workers who worked at Mumbai Chopstix and Mantra; that case was settled out of court.
Similar wage theft legislation has been passed in Seattle in 2011, and more recently in Chicago in January this year, but there is currently no such ordinance in any city in the Bay State.
The matter has now been referred to the Somerville city government’s legislative matters committee for discussion.