For 10 months spanning the years 2010 and 2011, a contractor hired several non-union employees to do construction work on a building in upper Manhattan. The employees, some of whom were undocumented, claimed that standard construction site safety procedures were not followed and added that they lacked the proper equipment needed to break up the floor. Machinery typically used at similar sites was not available; much of the work was instead done by hand.
The employees worked from eight to 10 hours each day, with a half-hour unpaid lunch break, for $10 an hour. They had no benefits and sometimes worked seven days a week. Their employer failed to even provide them with such basics as drinking water or a place to eat. They didn’t have protective gear or face masks, unless they were undergoing a city inspection. As they dug further into the ground, the holes risked collapse since required supports were not in place. When they complained, they were told they could quit. One worker summed up the group’s opinion by stating that their hard work saved his employer money.
The workers finally reached their breaking point when they weren’t paid for two pay periods in June 2011. They sought legal help from the New Immigrant Community Empowerment non-profit agency and filed a lawsuit. New York has passed the Wage Theft Prevention Act, which places serious sanctions on employers for failing to pay employees. However, wage theft is still a serious issue in the state, with totals estimated as high as $1 billion annually in New York City alone.
Employees can pursue legal action against employers who have not followed basic safety procedures. A construction accident prevention attorney might be held to advise clients on filing a lawsuit.
Source: The American Prospect, “Men at Work,” Sujatha Fernandes, March 14, 2013