House bill guarantees wages

By Sandra Baltazar Martinez: The New Mexican

House Labor and Human Resources Committee members approved a bill aimed at protecting New Mexico employees from wage theft.

House Bill 489 sponsored by State Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, was approved with a 4-2 vote Tuesday.

Among other provisions, the bill aims to guarantee that workers get their wages paid, provide employees with protection from retaliation and extend the statue of limitation.

Brandt Milestein, an Albuquerque lawyer who served as one of the experts for Garcia, explained that the way the current wage law is written, it fails to protect employees from being fired if they complain to authorities regarding unpaid hours. The current law also only gives workers one year in back pay wages. The new provision would allow the person to claim two to three years worth of unpaid hours.

Elsa Lopez, community organizer for Somos un Pueblo Unido, a local immigrant-rights organization supporting the bill, said that each year about $19 billion is stolen from workers across the United States.

“When a worker is not paid, it hurts the local economy,” said Marcela Diaz, director of Somos un Pueblo Unido.

Officials from the state Labor and Industrial Bureau said they were in full support of the bill, since their department received 1,475 new cases between July 1 through Dec. 31, 2008. According to Francie Cordova, labor relations division director, in six months the department collected more than $934,000 from employers who denied payment to their employees.

In a report distributed by Richard Edwards, labor law administrator with the state Labor Relations Division, in December 2008 alone, the department collected more than $84,000 in lost wages.

Other supporters in the audience were Hank Hughes, executive director for New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness; Chris Chavez, executive director with New Mexico Federation of Labor, and several community members who shared their personal experiences with the House Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Maria Garcia of Santa Fe said that she was speaking on behalf of her daughter, whose boss neglected to pay her one week’s worth of labor, claiming that she had scratched a window worth $6,000.

“It’s not just my daughter because I know of many people who are scared of speaking up,” Garcia said.

Another Santa Fe resident, Gilberto Almuina, shared a similar story. “I was contracted to work as a chauffeur for a woman who had her driver license expired,” he said. “We did landscaping work, this was in November and until now, I have not seen my check.”

Contact Sandra Baltazar Martinez at 986-3062 or smartinez@sfnewmexican.com.