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.

Workers Recover More than $200,000 in Recent Legal Victories

In the past six months, WJCNY and our clients succeeded in recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, penalties for various labor standards violations, and attorneys’ fees for WJCNY’s legal representation. These cases span a vast geography—from the suburbs of New York City to rural areas of Western New York—and across an array of industries including construction, food preparation, large-scale crop farming and dairy businesses. WJCNY commenced litigation, on behalf our courageous clients, in federal and state courts, as well filing complaints with administrative agencies, to pursue relief for wage theft under the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law, and illegal retaliation against workers in in violation of the National Labor Relations Act. The successful resolution of these cases not only provides monetary compensation to directly affected workers but also serves to deter future labor abuses by these employers, thereby benefiting hundreds of low-wage workers.

The widespread failure of employers to pay workers the wages they have earned harms New York families and the public. It deepens poverty, reduces state and local revenue, increases the use of public assistance and disadvantages local business owners who play by the rules. Despite the severity of the wage theft epidemic, governmental resources for the enforcement of labor standards are grossly insufficient and only a small fraction of unpaid wages are recovered by federal and state agencies combined. Moreover, the incidence of wage theft is greatest among recent immigrants who are often unlikely to engage with governmental offices, especially when linguistic and cultural barriers exist. Currently, no other non-profit legal service provider in New York maintains an anti-wage theft program across the entirety of upstate New York. WJCNY’s role in enforcing labor standards for low-wage workers is critical to securing dignified treatment of all New York workers and combating the negative consequences of labor violations for all communities. 

WJCNY Files Class Action Against Café Spice, a Major Prepared Food Supplier, For Array of Labor Violations at New Windsor Plant

This past Friday, WJCNY filed a complaint in U.S. District Court on behalf of over 200 current and former employees of a large-scale food processing, packaging, and distribution plant operated by Café Spice, Inc. in New Windsor, NY. The lawsuit alleges that the company’s treatment of its workers violates the minimum wage, overtime and timely payment provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the minimum wage, overtime, timely payment and unlawful deductions provisions of New York Labor Law. The case was brought by six former Café Spice, Inc. employees who seek relief for themselves and other similarly situated current and former employees.

The defendant, Café Spice, is a popular and highly profitable culinary enterprise that includes numerous restaurants, express booths, and a wholesale division that provides prepared dishes to retailers and food service companies across the country, such as Whole Foods and Sodexo. The company grosses an estimated $25 million in sales annually. Despite the company’s purported  commitment to social responsibility, workers at Café Spice’s wholesale production facility describe widespread and varied labor violations over the past decade. Plaintiffs allege that the company drastically increased production and ignored dangerous working conditions while reducing break times, demanding longer hours and “off the clock” labor, failing to pay wages in a timely manner, taking unlawful deductions from employees’ paychecks, misclassifying workers, failing to provide spread of hours pay, failing to provide proper hiring and wage notices, and neglecting to pay the required minimum wage and overtime rate. “Many of us worked for the company for years under very tough conditions,” says Plaintiff Isaac Runciman. “We are only asking for what we are owed and what is just.”

See our full press release in English or Spanish.

Lewis Papenfuse Retiring as Executive Director, WJCNY Welcomes Lauren Deutsch

Our dedicated and beloved Executive Director, Lew Papenfuse, has announced his plan to retire next month after twenty-six years of combined service to WJCNY and our predecessor organization, Farmworker Legal Services of New York. Lew will be greatly missed by our staff, board, and the larger community of workers and advocates alongside whom he has fought so hard to advance the cause of social justice and labor rights in New York State. We congratulate Lew on his many contributions and accomplishments and wish him a much-deserved, happy retirement. 

WJCNY is pleased to welcome Lauren Deutsch, Esq. (pictured) as WJCNY's new Executive Director, beginning in December. Lauren brings ten years of skilled non-profit leadership experience to WJCNY. She has been a lifelong advocate for social justice and equality with a strong commitment to helping vulnerable and at-risk populations. For the past four years, Lauren has served as Executive Director of Healthy Baby Network, a non-profit focusing on vulnerable mothers and families to provide every baby the opportunity to be born healthy. She previously worked as a Domestic Violence Staff Attorney with The Legal Aid Society of Western New York.

See our full press release here. 

WJCNY Opens Westchester Office

WJCNY has officially established an office location in Hawthorne, NY to address significant unmet need for legal assistance in labor and employment law matters among low-wage workers in Westchester County. This geographic expansion coincides with the launch of WJCNY’s partnership with Westchester Labor Alliance (Alianza Laboral), a vibrant coalition of five community-based worker centers located throughout the county. Supported in part by funding from the Westchester Community Foundation, WJCNY conducts regularly scheduled free legal clinics at each of the Alianza Laboral worker centers. WJCNY staff attorneys provide consultations and, when appropriate, represent workers in litigation matters to combat wage theft and other labor abuses. We also work closely with worker center staff and Alianza Laboral to develop organizing and advocacy campaigns aimed to affect systemic change. Already, WJCNY and Alianza Laboral have succeeded in recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and other compensation through our impact-oriented litigation. 

WJCNY and Don Bosco Workers Win Case for Local Construction Workers

Rudy Ramirez and Roger Aleman were hired to perform heavy construction work in the Bronx, NY, where their employers sought to quickly erect a major building to be leased for commercial purposes. As Rudy and Roger were pushed to work day and night, their employers cut corners, failing to pay for overtime work and ultimately stopping payment of wages altogether. After several weeks of working without pay and substantially completing the construction project, Rudy and Roger were summarily fired by their bosses who refused to pay them anything whatsoever. Rudy and Roger sought help from Don Bosco Workers, a vibrant worker center located in Port Chester, NY, and were then connected to attorneys at WJCNY who filed suit in U.S. District Court on their behalf.  After almost one year of litigation and with significant support from Don Bosco Workers, WJCNY succeeded in recovering more than $50,000 for Rudy and Roger, including their earned but unpaid wages. Rudy Ramirez is pictured above (right) with Gonzalo Cruz (left) of Don Bosco Workers.

WJCNY Represents Landscaping Workers Through Partnership with United Community Centers of New Roschelle

WJCNY and New Jersey-based co-counsel David Tykulsker are representing New Rochelle-area laborers who worked for a large landscaping and maintenance company, servicing the properties of a major New York real estate conglomerate, but were denied minimum wage and overtime pay in violation of federal and state law. This case, developed in partnership with United Community Center of Westchester, involves egregious labor standards violations affecting more than 80 low-wage, immigrant workers.

For years, employees of Rosann Landscape Corp. were required to begin working as early as 5:00am, transporting and unloading equipment to their work sites in New York and New Jersey. However, the workers were never paid for these and other mandatory hours of labor they performed while servicing large residential developments where they did long hours of physically strenuous landscaping and maintenance work. Routinely, workweeks at Rosann Landscape Corp. totaled more than 55 hours of work for each laborer, but no employees received overtime compensation as required by law and many received less than minimum wage during certain periods. The plaintiffs seek relief under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law.

WJCNY Files Class Action on Behalf of Puerto Rican Migrant Farm Laborers Illegally Denied Work by Upstate NY Employer After Hurricane Maria

The Worker Justice Center of New York has filed a complaint in U.S. District Court seeking class action status on behalf of former employees of W.D. Henry & Sons, Inc. and related companies owned and operated by Dan and Mark Henry in Eden, New York. 

Since at least 2001, W.D. Henry & Sons, Inc. has recruited and profited from the labor of U.S. citizen residents of Villalba, Puerto Rico who have reliably traveled each season at their own expense to upstate New York and worked long hours in the company’s fields and packing facilities.  

Beginning in 2016, W.D. Henry & Sons, Inc. began to take steps to replace their U.S. citizen Puerto Rican employees with temporary foreign guest workers under the H-2A visa program. Under federal law, agricultural employers are prohibited from displacing U.S. workers in favor of foreign guest workers. Moreover, all U.S. employees are entitled to the same benefits and working conditions as their H-2A guest worker counterparts. Seeking to evade these legal requirements, W.D. Henry & Sons, Inc. drastically reduced the work hours of its U.S. citizen employees, misrepresented the rights of U.S. workers to higher paying employment opportunities provided to H-2A guest workers, summarily evicted U.S. farm workers from their housing to make room for H-2A guest workers, withheld wages from U.S. workers in order to coerce them into signing false declarations as purported evidence of abandonment of their jobs, and failed to recruit and re-hire their U.S. workers as required by law. The company did this during the same time that their Puerto Rican employees’ home community was devasted by Hurricane Maria, when they were in desperate need of employment.

See our full press release in English or Spanish.

Thank you to all our supporters!

With your generous support, WJCNY raised over $75K this summer during our first-ever grassroots fundraising drive--far exceeding our expectations. On behalf of the entire staff and board of WJCNY, we want to thank the many donors and volunteers who helped make our grassroots fundraising drive such a tremendous success. Your contributions will help us rise to the challenges ahead and fight back head-on against the barrage of attacks aimed at farmworkers and immigrant communities throughout our state.