Albany Delivers Big Victories for NY Farmworkers

The WJCNY staff and board are beyond overjoyed this week with some long-overdue legislative wins! The passage of the “Green Light NY” bill permitting access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrant New Yorkers along with the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act were long-overdue victories for NY’s immigrant farmworker communities.

This are historic wins! An estimated seven-hundred fifty-thousand individuals in NY stand to benefit from the life-altering ability to identify oneself with a state-issued I.D, to apply for a driver license and purchase insurance, to access their children's schools, churches, medical appointments, grocery stores, and increase social integration in their communities. The human impact of being able to access driver licenses is immeasurable for NY's immigrant communities.

Further, the estimated eighty-thousand farmworkers who work on New York farms will finally be ensured overtime pay, the right to organize their workplaces and collectively bargain and the right to a day of rest, among other protections. A remnant of the Jim-Crow era, the nearly ninety years of exclusion of farmworkers from these essential labor rights has finally been remedied and the dignity and of the agricultural workforce duly recognized and respected.

WJCNY thanks all of our coalition partners across the state who worked tirelessly for years for passage of these bills. We further express our sincere gratitude to legislative bill sponsors Senators Luis R. Sepúlveda and Jessica Ramos as well as Assembly Members Marcos Crespo and Catherine Nolan and finally, to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his leadership in making NY a place that truly welcomes and embraces our immigrant neighbors and friends.

 


WJCNY Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Dairy Worker in Herkimer County

On June 14, 2019, WJCNY filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York alleging claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act, New York Labor Law, and the New York Real Property Law. The action was filed on behalf of Plaintiff George Hatfield II against Dari Del Inc., Manino Brothers Holdings, LLC, Manino Brothers, Inc. and Samuel A. Manino. Mr. Hatfield served as a manual laborer in Defendants’ profitable Herkimer-based dairy production, processing, distribution and retail businesses.

Mr. Hatfield, who lost his hearing at a young age, was thrilled when he and his wife found an advertisement for dairy work in Central New York. Mr. Hatfield longed for an opportunity to return to Herkimer County where he was born and raised. He didn’t bargain that his return would be conditioned upon exposing himself to severe labor abuses; a grueling seven day, eighty-plus hour work-week schedule and living in unsafe and uninhabitable housing. Throughout the duration of his employment, he was paid less than three dollars per hour while required to live in on-site, overcrowded and substandard housing with his wife and ten-year-old child. He performed a broad range of arduous tasks for Defendants, including non-agricultural work.  

Despite his tireless work, Defendants denied Mr. Hatfield basic minimum wage pay, overtime pay, subjected him to unlawful payroll practices, unlawfully deducted wages from his paychecks and committed numerous additional employment and housing law violations. The lawsuit seeks unpaid minimum wage and overtime compensation, statutory liquidated damages, attorneys fees, costs, prejudgment interest, and damages for housing violations, unlawful deductions, spread of hours violations, and inadequate pay notices.

On the matter from WJCNY is staff attorney John Marsella, assisted by paralegal Gabriel Marcano. Click here to read the full complaint. 


Farmworkers win the right to collectively bargain

ALBANY - A state appellate court today declared unconstitutional a Jim Crow-era exclusion in state law that denies farmworkers the right to organize and collectively bargain. Plaintiffs Crispin Hernandez, the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, originally challenged the exclusion of farmworkers from basic labor protections in 2016. 
 
“This is a victory for farmworkers, as we have finally had our day in court,” said Crispin Hernandez, who was fired from his job as a dairy worker in Lowville, NY in 2015 after his boss saw him meeting after work with co-workers and human rights organizers to discuss workplace conditions. “All workers deserve to have a voice and be heard at their place of work, and farmworkers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”
 
Under the New York Constitution, all workers have a right to organize and collectively bargain. Yet since the 1930s, farmworkers have been excluded from those basic workers’ rights by a carve out in the State Employment Relations Act. This carve out is a carryover from a New Deal legislative compromise with segregationist Congressmen to exclude farmworkers and domestic workers, who were predominantly Black at the time.
 
“Today, the court recognized that farmworkers are entitled to the same rights as all other workers in New York state,” said Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York. “Farmworkers make essential contributions to New York and to all of our lives. Their labor produces the food, nutrition, and money that sustain our economy and our communities.
 
When the plaintiffs initially filed suit in May of 2016, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Attorney General publicly agreed that excluding farmworkers from the right to organize conflicts with the state constitution. Both declined to defend the lawsuit in court. However, the New York Farm Bureau requested that the court allow it to intervene to defend the law as a party in the case, and in January 2018, a state court granted their motion to dismiss the case. The New York State Attorney General’s office jointed the plaintiffs in appealing to the Third Department, arguing that the exclusion of farmworkers from collective bargaining is unconstitutional. The Third Department Appellate Division heard arguments on the case in February 2019.
 
“Today’s ruling shows that justice is clearly on the side of farmworkers,” said Andrea Callan, managing director of the Worker Justice Center of New York. “For many decades, each time farmworkers and their allies have advocated for much-needed changes to laws governing their labor rights, the Farm Bureau has used its power and influence to lobby New York lawmakers to preserve the status quo and leave farmworkers in a position of vulnerability. We expect the bureau will appeal and we will keep fighting until we win full equal rights.” 
 
Alongside today’s ruling, state lawmakers are considering legislation that would grant farmworkers the same rights as almost all other hourly workers in New York in addition to collective bargaining. These include overtime pay and a day of rest. Though such legislation has passed the state assembly in prior years, it now has a majority of sponsors in the state senate for the first time.
 
“The court’s ruling today was unequivocal that denying farmworkers basic labor rights is flat-out unconstitutional, and farmworkers, like other workers, have the right to organize,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The workers on whom we depend for the food on our tables have the right to be treated humanely and with dignity, like any other hardworking New Yorker.”
 
Even though farming in New York is a multi-billion dollar industry, farmworkers often earn wages well below the poverty level, and many live in overcrowded labor camps and toil under sweatshop-like conditions. The combination of poverty, isolation, and lack of permanent legal status and language access makes farmworkers among the most exploited groups in the American labor force.
 
“The language of the New York Constitution is very clear: all employees have the right to organize,” said Erin Beth Harrist, lead counsel and senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “The exclusion of farmworkers from this constitutional right in New York is against our values and our laws.” 

WJCNY wins trial victory on behalf of Westchester-based construction workers

WJCNY attorneys, representing the plaintiffs in the matter of Bisono et al. v. TDL Restoration et al., won in a jury trial completed on Monday, May 6 following seven days of arguments before the U.S. District Court in White Plains, NY. The jury in this case found in favor of the Plaintiffs, Jose Bisono, Joaquin Vicente and Edgar Mendez, on all questions and awarded the maximum damages permissible for violations of Federal and State labor laws. This is a vindication of the workers' rights and holds their former employer accountable for not paying them their earned wages. Bringing this case was not easy and required tremendous effort from the Plaintiffs, extensive legal work by their attorneys and substantial community support. However, the positive outcome should encourage others who face illegal exploitation to seek justice. Lead WJCNY attorney on the case was legal director Robert McCreanor, joined by WJCNY staff attorneys Maureen Hussain and John Marsella, paralegals Nathalia Rosado-Oliveras and Ken Wolkin, worker rights advocate Cristian Avila and administrative staff Diana Saguilan and Amanda Batista.


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WJCNY Staff Present at SOMOS Conference

WJCNY staff members were honored to be invited to serve as panelists during this year’s SOMOS Conference which took place this past weekend in Albany. SOMOS, Inc., is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization committed to addressing the needs of the Hispanic population of New York State in collaboration with the NYS Assembly/Senate Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force. The SOMOS conferences serve as a platform for legislators, scholars, business and labor leaders to address various concerns pertinent to our state’s Hispanic community.

Emma Kreyche, Statewide Coordinator of the Green Light Campaign, spoke on a panel entitled “Equal Access to Driver’s Licenses for all New Yorkers,” explaining why it is essential for immigrant New Yorkers to obtain driver’s licenses. For many of the immigrant workers served by WJCNY, public transportation is inadequate, unreliable or simply non-existent. Individuals need to have access to drivers’ licenses so they can go about essential daily tasks - going to the grocery store, picking up children from school, going to a doctor’s appointment – safely and without fear of detention or deportation. This panel was live-streamed by Univision.  

Andrea Callan, Managing Director, spoke on a panel entitled “Protecting NYS’ Most Vulnerable Workers” and focused her comments on the pervasive practice of wage theft – when an employer fails to pay an employee the legally-mandated minimum wage, promised wage or overtime wages. Andrea brought the farmworker perspective to the panel, highlighting that this population of workers suffers a form of wage theft that is currently legally permissible under current state and federal law  - farmworkers are legally exempt from earning overtime wages. To remedy this exemption from the state law, WJCNY supports the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, a state bill that would permit farmworkers the same rights to overtime, collective bargaining, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation and a day of rest that almost all other workers in NY already enjoy.


WJCNY Ramps Up Efforts to Restore Driver's Licenses Access to Undocumented New Yorkers

WJCNY has long advocated for the restoration of driver's license access to undocumented New Yorkers. This year, it could finally become a reality. Together with our partner organizations in the Green Light NY: Driving Together Coalition, we are pushing harder than ever for passage of legislation that would provide immigrant New Yorkers the opportunity to become licensed drivers with the ability to register and insure their vehicles, regardless of immigration status.

Lack of access to driver's licenses disproportionately affects farmworkers and other immigrant workers living in rural and suburban communities without reliable public transportation. Farmworkers often depend on rides from their employers to access basic good and services, such as grocery shopping and medical appointments, or must pay an exorbitant proportion of their hard-earned wages toward car services. Many are left with little choice but to drive without a license and run the risk of being detained or deported over a routine traffic stop, like dairy farmworker leader Carlos Cardona, whose case is still pending in immigration court.

Now is the time for New York State's legislature to pass legislation expanding driver's license eligibility. Please join us in Albany next Tuesday, March 12, as we call on lawmakers to ACT NOW on driver's licenses. The Green Light campaign will be sending buses from across the state. Sign up here for a seat on the bus nearest you! For more information about the Green Light campaign, visit www.greenlightnewyork.org. 


WJCNY Appointed Class Counsel in Litigation Against Roseann Landscape Corp. / WJCNY Asignado como los Abogados de la Clase en el Caso Contra Rosann Landscape Corp.

Worker Justice Center of New York has been appointed Class Counsel, along with David Tykulsker, Esq., for Plaintiffs in the class action case Jose Barragan Contreras et al v. Rosann Landscape et al.  If you worked for Rosann Landscape Corp., Rosann Land Improvement Ltd., A.F.A. Management and/or Ana Maria Birlesuci at any time from August 24, 2011 to present, please click here for an important notice regarding your rights and how you may participate in the case. 

El Centro de Justicia para Trabajadores de Nueva York fue nombrado los Abogado de la Clase, junto con David Tykulsker, Esq., para los Representantes de Clase Demenadantes, José Barragan Contreras et al. v. Rosann Landscape et al. Si trabajó en cualquier momento desde el 24 de agosto de 2011 hasta la fecha presente, con Rosann Landscape Corp., Rosann Land Improvement Ltd., A.F.A. Management y/o Ana Maria Birlesuci en,  haga click aqui para obtener un aviso importante sobre sus derechos y cómo puede participar en el caso.


Worker Justice Center in Court to Continue Fight for Farmworker Right to Organize

Staff and supporters of WJCNY were in court yesterday in Albany as we continue our fight in challenging the Jim Crow-era state law, the State Employment Relations Act, that denies farmworkers the right to organize in their workplaces without the fear of retaliation. WJCNY is a co-plaintiff in the case, along with farmworker, Crispin Hernandez and sister organization, the Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY). The plaintiffs are represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The basis of the lawsuit, now before the appellate court in Albany, stems from the firing of Crispin Hernandez by his former employer, Mark’s Farm, after Crispin  was observed by his employer discussing poor workplace conditions with co-workers and an organizer from the WCCNY. “Without farmworkers and our labor, New Yorkers wouldn’t have fruits or vegetables to put on their dinner table,” said Mr. Hernandez. “We deserve to be treated like human beings, without fear of retaliation.” 

Coinciding with yesterday's court appearance, Mr. Hernandez penned an op-ed published in the New York Daily News discussing the struggles of farmworkers who lack the essential right to organize their workplaces and why it is important to end the shameful exclusion of farmworkers from this essential right. 

When the State Employment Relations Act was passed in 1937 to incorporate the federal New Deal Era-protections for workers into New York law, lawmakers carried over a carve-out excluding farmworkers and domestic workers from worker protections. The federal protections had excluded farmworkers, the majority of whom were black at the time, as a compromise to get the votes of segregationist members of Congress. This exclusion now applies to farmworkers in New York today, who are, for the most part, immigrant workers.

When the plaintiffs initially filed suit in May of 2016, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Attorney General publicly agreed that excluding farmworkers from the right to organize conflicts with the state constitution. Both declined to defend the lawsuit in court. However, the New York Farm Bureau requested that the court allow it to intervene to defend the law as a party in the case. The New York State Attorney General’s office filed a brief in support of the position that the exclusion is unconstitutional. 

“There is simply no justification for depriving farmworkers of the basic right to organize,” said Carly Fox, an advocate with the Worker Justice Center of New York. “For many decades, each time farmworkers and their allies have advocated for much-needed changes to laws governing their labor rights, the Farm Bureau has used its power and influence to lobby New York lawmakers to preserve the status quo and leave farmworkers in a position of vulnerability. Justice is clearly on the side of the farmworkers, and we will keep fighting until we win full equal rights.” 

A decision by the appellate court is expected in the coming months.

For more coverage of our day in court, see:

"Suit to allow farmworker organizing heard in Albany appeals court." Watertown Daily Times, Feb. 12, 2019

"Arguments heard in farm worker rights suit." Times Union, Feb. 11, 2019 


WJCNY Representative Testifies at Public Hearing on Wage Theft in New York State

Yesterday the New York State Assembly held a public hearing on the persistent problem of wage theft in New York State. Representatives from the Assembly's Labor and Judiciary committees heard testimony from workers and advocates in an effort to better understand how the state can address wage theft through legislation and improved enforcement measures. Emma Kreyche, Senior Organizing & Advocacy Coordinator at WJCNY, provided testimony outlining the barriers workers face in holding employers accountable for wage theft and other workplace abuses. Emma pointed to the need for New York State to adopt basic labor protections for farmworkers, including overtime pay and collective bargaining protections, as well as for legislation that would strengthen enforcement of existing labor law. In particular, the EMPIRE (Empowering People in Rights Enforcement) Act would allow aggrieved employees and trusted public interest organizations to file claims against employers who violate state labor law on behalf of the Labor Commissioner. The bill would both generate revenue for state enforcement efforts and provide an important remedy for workers forced into signing arbitration agreements that prohibit class and collective actions. Additionally, the SWEAT (Securing Wages Earned Against Theft) Bill would provide victims of wage theft with necessary tools to collect on judgments. Too often, abusive employers evade enforcement of the law by transferring private and corporate assets, stymieing efforts by workers to recover damages. SWEAT would allow workers to freeze the employer’s assets, ensuring that workers who are cheated out of their pay can actually get it back. WJCNY also supports the One Fair Wage campaign, which aims to establish an equal minimum wage for tipped workers. The adoption of these measures would serve as a powerful deterrent against wage theft and worker exploitation, ensuring robust enforcement through the combined efforts of impacted workers, public interest organizations, and the New York State Department of Labor.


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