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State Launches Campaign to End Wage Theft

SANTA FE, N.M. — Mayor David Coss and New Mexico Attorney General’s Office kicked off the “Campaign to End Wage Theft” on Wednesday – but without the help of the agencies that can prosecute the nonpayment of wages.

Organized by the Interfaith Worker Justice-New Mexico and the immigrants’ rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, the campaign seeks to educate communities about the existence and impact of wage theft.

“It helps us bring awareness to the public and educate the public,” Coss said to a crowd of about 20 listeners.

Wage theft is the illegal underpayment or non-payment of workers’ wages. Supporters of the campaign say it affects millions of workers each year, straining social service and charitable programs, robbing government of tax revenue and putting a strain on the entire community.

Alma Castro, an organizer with Somos, called wage theft a crime that often goes unreported and unprosecuted.

In 2009, New Mexico became one of the first states to pass anti-wage theft legislation giving all workers the right to file claims against employers who withhold wages for work completed. The law provides treble damages and protects workers from retaliation.

Assistant Attorney General Stuart Bluestone said the state Department of Workforce Solutions and local prosecutors are responsible for enforcing the law.

But no one from the department or representing local district attorneys appeared at the news conference. A spokesman for the AG’s office said afterward that the office is looking into ways it can support wage theft prosecution.

“Once you pass a law, that’s just the first step,” said the Rev. Holly Beaumont, organizing director of the Interfaith Worker Justice-New Mexico. “Without workers coming forward and reporting, there is absolutely no way we can eliminate wage theft.”

Manuel Antonio Estevez Rodriguez says he’s still waiting for the money he earned after working for Santa Fe’s China Star restaurant for years. He worked 12 hours a day and was paid for just six hours. That translates into $59,000 in unpaid wages.

China Star filed for bankruptcy six months after the claim, Castro said. Somos has been fighting for compensation for five former China Star employees and

“We’re still pursuing it,” Castro said.

Even with the law in place, Carlos Delgado still has not received the $14,000 he says he is owed.

“I have children that are 4 and 6 years old,” he said. “Not only do we not have food, but I’m still fighting for the money I’m owed.”

As the economy has shed jobs, 20 percent of New Mexicans have been driven into poverty, said Beaumont. From 2009 to 2010, the state’s poverty level increased by 2 percent, she added. “If we continue at that rate, we will be in deep trouble.” Somos director Marcela Diaz called the campaign a step in the right direction.

“When businesses don’t follow the rules, they undermine other businesses,” she said. “It effects the bottom line for families. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s tough.”

The campaign has been endorsed by a number of faith, labor, business and community organizations.

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