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An ‘amicable’ end to wage-theft litigation

SANTA FE, N.M. — Workers in New Mexico got a nice Christmas present this week when a legal settlement that fortifies enforcement of laws against wage theft was announced.

Santa Fe-based Somos Un Pueblo Unido and other groups went to court with accusations that the state Department of Workforce Solutions (the erstwhile Labor Department) failed to enforce provisions of the state Minimum Wage Act by improperly dismissing complaints, failing to pursue claims for unpaid wages of more than $10,000 and not holding employers liable for damages.

The litigation seems to have worked. Workforce Solutions agreed to settle with the plaintiffs “amicably,” to quote one of the state’s court filings.

“We are pleased that we were able to resolve this matter quickly,” said a department deputy secretary.

The settlement lifts the $10,000 cap on claims for missing wages, extends the statute of limitations for filing a claim from one to three years and requires Workforce Solution to seek damages (three times the wages owed, under state statute) for wage theft.

The department has even agreed to run public service ads about how to file wage-theft claims and to revisit claims of missing wages that may have been mishandled going three years back. Lifting the cap on wage claims will help workers like a line cook who says a Farmington restaurant owes him $15,000 and his wife $25,000.

All of this is good news.

Fighting wage theft shouldn’t be a partisan issue – who can argue that getting paid for a proper day’s work isn’t the right thing to do? Workforce Solutions says some of the practices that have been in dispute were in place before Republican Gov. Susana Martinez took office in 2011.

New Mexico has tough laws on the books about unpaid wages, but as Somos and other plaintiffs note, that doesn’t matter if the statutes aren’t enforced. Wage theft is a problem that can fly below the radar of those of us who take a regular paycheck for granted. The New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty says 500 wage-theft complaints are filed each year.

It’s an issue that needs to be taken seriously. The court settlement – and Workforce Solutions’ positive reaction to it – should mean that happens going forward.