Melinda Katz, the author, center (photo: @queensbpkatz)
New York City and our nation as a whole are at an important moment in history. As Republicans in Washington threaten rights and pass bigoted legislation, local leaders need to take a stand and fight back on a broad range of issues, because the reforms and legal protections we need will not come for those who wait, they will come from those who demand them.
As I run to be the next Queens District Attorney, I am releasing the first of a series of policy papers discussing pressing issues facing our borough. In the coming weeks and months, I will lay out my plans for addressing immigrant rights, racial disparities in our justice system, domestic violence, women’s rights, the use of seized assets, and more. Today we need to consider how the District Attorney can better protect worker rights.
For generations, Queens has been home to working- and middle-class families, as well as different waves of immigrants pursuing the American Dream. People here work hard to give their families new opportunities, but there are also bosses who seek to cheat these families or bump up their profits by putting workers in harm’s way. We need our next District Attorney to put a new focus on these crimes against workers, bringing justice for those who have been victimized for too long.
The current Economic Crimes Bureau in the Queens DA’s office states that its traditional role is protecting employers from embezzlement by employees. I believe there must be resources also devoted to addressing the extensive theft in the opposite direction: employers stealing wages from workers. New York’s workers lose over a billion dollars a year due to wage theft, as their hard-earned dollars are illegally stolen and put into the pockets of employers, with the largest number of victims in the construction, restaurant, janitorial, and home care fields.
While some workers are robbed of their paychecks, others are robbed of their lives and well-being. Workers, especially construction workers, are injured and even killed on the job far too frequently, often as a result of employer negligence. These workplace safety violations often go unreported, and after an accident, evidence of wrongdoing can disappear if not gathered quickly. Currently, the DA waits for the city to make determinations before getting involved, leaving far too many workers unprotected and far too many negligent employers unaccountable.
Historically, crimes against workers would only result in a fine or civil action, but it’s time to recognize that white collar crime has no moral high ground over other crimes: if you steal from workers, you are as guilty as someone who holds up a liquor store. If you injure workers due to negligence, you are no better than a thug who beats someone up on the street.
I will bring criminal prosecutions against those who commit these crimes against workers, and I will make sure we have the evidence to build winning cases. Instead of waiting for the city, I will assign an Assistant District Attorney with an expertise in the construction industry to every major workplace accident or fatality. I will pursue legal action against employers that knowingly put construction workers or others at risk, and individuals who commit wage theft. And I will reach out to workers and community leaders to make sure that no one is victimized because they don’t know their rights and are left vulnerable to these crimes.
To achieve this, I will establish a Worker Protection Bureau in the Queens DA office to investigate and prosecute workers’ rights violations. Specifically, my office will take a more hands-on approach to investigating workplace injuries, prosecuting workplace violations and wage thefts, and creating protections for immigrants.
Queens is known as the World’s Borough and has a rich and thriving immigrant community. Unfortunately, immigrant workers are most likely to be targeted and many are reluctant to come forward for fear of having their immigrant status threatened. As part of my Worker Protection Bureau, I will have a multilingual team doing proactive outreach to workers, while guaranteeing that no one will be subject to arrest for reporting workplace violations. I will also hire a specific liaison to undocumented workers so that there is better dialogue among the District Attorney’s office, undocumented workers, and organizations working with undocumented workers.
All workers are entitled to a safe workplace where they earn fair wages and are treated with respect. As Queens District Attorney, I will take an active role in ensuring workers’ rights are protected.
Melinda Katz is the Queens Borough President and a candidate in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney. On Twitter @MelindaKatz.