Bill would make general contractors liable for “wage theft” on all construction projects

Photo provided by the New York State Building and Construction Council
Construction workers and labor leaders held a rally on the steps of the state Capitol on May 24 to ask for passage of a bill that would make general contractors responsible for any incident of wage theft that occurs on construction projects they are managing.

Construction workers from across New York state rallied on the steps of the state Capitol recently to demand the passage of legislation that would give them better protection against wage theft — the deliberate withholding of wages, overtime, or benefits.

The rally was led by President of the New York State Building and Construction Council Gary LaBarbera, Senator Jessica Ramos, and Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner. The group is calling for the passage of legislation  (S.2766/A.3350) that would establish a statewide, uniform law across the construction industry making general contractors of private construction projects jointly responsible for wage theft violations. 

This would follow the system used in public construction projects in New York, where wage theft violations are better enforced. 

Watch highlights from the rally here:

According to the bill memo, under current law, a worker may bring a private lawsuit against his or her direct employer to collect any unpaid wages, including overtime and fringe benefits, which is a “major issue” in the construction industry “where, oftentimes, such direct employer is an unscrupulous subcontractor or labor broker willing to hide assets, change corporate identity and take part in other unscrupulous practices to avoid liability and make themselves judgment proof from a wage theft action.”

But filing a lawsuit requires time and money.

The bill states, “By holding the prime contractor of the construction project liable for all subcontractors that it chooses to utilize on a jobsite, New York state would go a long way towards ensuring that exploited construction workers are quickly able to collect unpaid wages, while creating an incentive for the construction industry to better self-police itself.”

In turn, this will decrease the burden on state and city agencies, including the Department of Labor and Workers’ Compensation Board, in terms of enforcement resources, according to the bill memo.

“For far too long, hardworking construction workers from all across the state have been put second to the profits of irresponsible, unscrupulous contractors,” LaBarbera said. “We cannot tolerate this injustice any longer. Lawmakers must pass legislation that finally protects New York’s working-class men and women from this reprehensible labor abuse.”

Ramos, who is the Senate sponsor of the legislation, said “at any point in time the exploitation of workers who have no advocate is reprehensible and immoral. But, in the aftermath of economic and public health crises that most impacted the workers most vulnerable to this crime, the successful passage of this legislation is more important than ever.” 

The Assembly sponsor of the legislation Latoya Joyner said “this is practical, commonsense and desperately needed legislation to protect New York’s most vulnerable construction workers, if it were doctors, lawyers, or bankers being systematically shortchanged by their employers, those industries would demand accountability. Hardworking men and women in the construction industry deserve equal protections. It’s time to stop wage theft now.” 

Often, the groups most affected by wage theft violations are the immigrant, undocumented, and non-union workers who usually have no one to advocate for them. 

One of the largest groups in attendance at the rally was New Immigrant Community Empowerment. That group’s Executive Director, Manuel Castro, spoke at the rally and said “our hardworking immigrant workers deserve better, and New York lawmakers have the opportunity right now to show these workers that their livelihoods and their wellbeing matters.” 

This type of wage theft legislation has been successful in five other states and the District of Columbia. 

The New York State Building and Construction Trades Council has been leading the charge in support of this legislation, making it their number one legislative priority this session.  

The Assembly version of the legislation was originally passed in January 2021 but was recently recalled to be amended. The Senate version passed the Labor Committee on May 10 and is ready for a vote on the floor.