Protesters in Santa Fe call for action on “wage theft”

 

SANTA FE — Several dozen people marched in front of the Department of Workforce Solutions in Santa Fe on Wednesday to protest what they say are administrative policy changes under Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration that make it more difficult for wage theft victims to recuperate stolen wages.

Workforce Solutions Cabinet Secretary Celina Bussey called the protest “a ridiculous political stunt by a left-wing group” and insisted “their wild-eyed claims are false.”

The governor’s office deferred comment to Workforce Solutions.

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Carrying signs that read, “Governor: Support working families not wage thieves” and chanting such slogans as “Hey Susana, ¿Que te pasa? You turned your back on your propia raza,” the protest organized by the United Worker Center of New Mexico called for Martinez’s administration to enforce the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act and punish employers who cheat workers out of wages.

“In 2009, the New Mexico Legislature passed a law to provide additional wage and hour protections to workers and to crack down on unscrupulous employers who steal from their employees,” Lorenzo Ramirez, a community organizer, said in both English and Spanish during the demonstration shortly after noon. “But under the Martinez administration, the Wage and Hour Division has turned away hundreds of workers from the administrative complaint process, and in many cases, has simply refused to enforce the 2009 law. This hurts working families and let’s the bad apple employers off the hook.”

The anti-wage theft bill passed in 2009 was introduced by state Rep. Miguel Garcia (D-Bernalillo), who recently wrote a letter asking Attorney General Gary King for an opinion on legal questions regarding actions taken by Workforce Solutions.

King, a Democrat, and Martinez, a Republican, are pitted against each other in this November’s gubernatorial election.

Among Garcia’s concerns are that the department will only pursue claims dating back one year, despite the bill expanding the statute of limitations from one year to three; that the department won’t accept claims by workers paid in cash or claims of more than $10,000; that it won’t accept certain government-issued identification cards; and that Workforce Solutions refuses to investigate employers known to have violated the state’s minimum wage law.

Several speakers at Wednesday’s demonstration reiterated those claims.

“I want to ask the Governor to resolve these abuses and not side with these employers, and that she be more concerned about all the workers in the community,” said Enrique Hernandez, who claims the Santa Fe restaurant he worked for shorted him $20,000 over the course of five years.

In an email to the Journal, Cabinet Secretary Bussey denied the allegations. She said Workforce Solutions does accept wage claims, even when a worker was paid in cash. She said the $10,000 limit for wage claims is something set by the courts when the agency is unable to settle a claim.

Regarding the one-year time period to file a claim, she said the document retention period for employees is one year, making it difficult to enforce the three-year rule. However, she added, “The department supports extending the document retention time-period to three years to align with the 2009 law.”

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