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Penalties proposed for wage law

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Criminal punishments may be faced under proposal

Employers who refuse to pay Albuquerque’s new minimum wage would face criminal penalties under a proposal to be introduced at today’s City Council meeting.

City Councilor Ken Sanchez, who’s sponsoring the proposal, said Mayor Richard Berry’s administration hasn’t done enough to enforce the wage ordinance, which was approved overwhelmingly by voters last year.

“The law is the law,” Sanchez said. “It’s up to the city of Albuquerque to enforce it.”

He joined fellow councilors Rey Garduño and Isaac Benton – plus a host of advocacy groups – at a news conference Friday to announce the proposal and to criticize Berry and City Attorney David Tourek.

Sanchez’s legislation would add a criminal penalty to the ordinance. Anyone who violated the wage law would be subject to a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail, if convicted.

Berry, in an interview, said the city is already enforcing the ordinance. It has taken one restaurant to court and issued two cease-and-desist letters to other businesses, ordering them to pay the higher wage, he said.

Berry noted that the criticism comes three weeks before Election Day, when he’s seeking a second term as mayor. One of Berry’s challengers, Pete Dinelli, has made enforcement of the ordinance – or lack thereof – a campaign issue.

“To tell our community that we’re not enforcing is not only untruthful, it’s disingenuous and it spreads dissent in our community that’s not there,” Berry said. “The facts are on our side.”

The new law boosted the minimum wage for most employees from $7.50 an hour to $8.50 an hour. Tipped employees went from $2.13 an hour to $3.83 an hour.

Berry opposed the wage ordinance and later said it wasn’t up to him to enforce it. That’s because the ordinance sets out a process in which employees can take their employers to court and sue them for back wages.

The law also says its requirements “may” be enforced by the city attorney. Sanchez’s proposal would change that language to “shall,” making it mandatory that the city attorney enforce the ordinance.

Tourek, the city attorney, said he has already taken steps to ensure local workers get the increased minimum wage. In one case, involving the Route 66 Malt Shop in Nob Hill, the city is representing a worker who says he didn’t receive the wage, he said.

In response to specific complaints from employees, Tourek said, the city also sent letters to a couple of businesses demanding that they pay the new wage, which apparently prompted them to do so.

Anyone else who calls will be referred to private attorneys who have already agreed to represent employees who need help, Tourek said. The workers shouldn’t have to pay the attorneys themselves, because the ordinance calls for legal costs to be paid by the employer, if the plaintiffs prevail.

“We don’t take this lightly,” Tourek said.

Garduño said he “absolutely” supports the proposal. Enforcement “is a matter of integrity on the part of the city,” he said.

The proposal is not expected to be acted on today.

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