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Lawsuit: New Mexico not investigating wage theft claims

SANTA FE — New Mexico has strong laws against wage theft or not paying workers what they’re owed, but the laws don’t do any good without proper enforcement.

That was the message that came out of a news conference held outside the Roundhouse on Wednesday to announce that a lawsuit had been filed against the state Department of Workforce Solutions.

Four people who say they were victims of wage theft and a coalition of workers’ rights groups are bringing the lawsuit, with four main allegations: that Workforce Solutions improperly imposes a $10,000 cap on investigating wage theft claims; doesn’t investigate or take action against businesses when a claim is more than a year old; doesn’t hold guilty employers liable for statutory damages during the administrative enforcement phase of a case; and refuses claims when workers get snagged by administrative red tape.

Workforce Solutions spokeswoman Joy Forehand said later that the department takes all allegations seriously, “even if they are coming from a politically motivated group.” She said investigations are “referred to District Court” if costs exceed $10,000 “because we believe this needs to be taken to the next level, given the severity of the problem.”

Forehand also said the one-year limit is set in law. But Elizabeth Wagoner, an attorney with the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty and lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said the Legislature added amendments in 2009 to extend the statute of limitations to three years and increase damages against offending employers to three times the amount of the lost wages. “A strong law is only as good as the enforcement framework behind it,” Wagoner said.

State Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, D-Albuquerque, who helped draft the 2009 amendments, placed some blame on Gov. Susa-na Martinez. “It’s deplorable that our governor wants to be tough on crime, but when it comes to wage theft, there’s hardly a mutter coming from the lips of the governor,” he said.

The lawsuit seeks orders that Workforce Solutions investigate wage theft claims, enforce the law and reopen past cases, including those of four plaintiffs who say the department failed them after they made complaints about not getting full pay.

On holding employers liable for statutory damages, Workforce Solutions’ Forehand said, “The department routinely requests for the appropriate court of law to apply damages and interest associated with wage claims once those cases are filed.”