NY labor laws at center of Sandy cleanup contract probes

Labor laws designed to keep workers from being exploited, and ensure taxpayers aren't shorted, are at the center of investigations into post-Sandy cleanup on Long Island.

Sources in Nassau and Suffolk counties have said in recent weeks subpoenas have been issued to county and town governments for records and contracts in connection with work done since superstorm Sandy hit on Oct. 29. The issue of whether the state's prevailing wage law was broken is part of the prosecutors' probes, sources said.

New York State's Labor Law requires all contractors and subcontractors to pay prevailing wages and benefits to workers on public works contracts.


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The state's law sets different rates for skilled and unskilled trades -- for everything from janitors and groundskeepers to electricians, laborers and heavy equipment operators.

The amounts that workers must be paid according to the law is published on the state Department of Labor's website.

For example, in Nassau and Suffolk counties, an asbestos removal worker must be paid $40.95 per hour. A boilermaker has a set pay rate of $47.98.

Penalties for violating the state's prevailing wage law were stiffened in 2008, when a bill known as "The Spota Law," after Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, became law and made some violations of the prevailing wage law a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

Marty Glennon, a Long Island labor attorney with the Melville firm Archer, Byington, Glennon & Levine and who helped write reforms that led to the stiffer penalties, said cases prosecuted in Suffolk over the past five years have seen wage and benefit recoveries for workers ranging from between $10,000 to $850,000 a case.

The problem, Glennon said, is "unscrupulous contractors" exploit worker ignorance of prevailing wage rates or -- in a tough economic climate -- demand kickbacks to lower workers' entitlements, pocketing the difference.

"Some workers don't even know they're entitled to prevailing wages, others in the present economic climate might be prepared to work for less, and both sets are being exploited by unscrupulous contractors who do not obey the law."

The Suffolk district attorney's office said it has averaged around $1.2 million a year in recouped wages and benefits for employees since the reforms.

Contractors who don't pay full wages are likely to also not pay the full amount of benefits, unemployment insurance and other taxes, experts said.

"We might never have to raise taxes on Long Island again if we just enforced the labor laws on the books," Glennon said. "What happens is the bad employers take the money and put it in their pockets -- think how much more disposable income there'd be and how all businesses could benefit if these employees all got what's owed them from the start."

A 45-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant from Corona, Queens, who asked not to be identified because he is in the country without proper documentation, said he was one of as many as 80 immigrant workers who were taken advantage of at work sites throughout New York City and, in some cases, Long Island. His attorney said the man was part of an ongoing prevailing wage investigation being conducted by the state attorney general.

"We know that this is happening to us because we are Hispanic immigrants, and it's hard for us to defend ourselves because we don't speak English," the worker said in Spanish. "They have us working really hard and they don't recognize that work . . . That's the reason we're complaining."

He and many other workers, mostly undocumented Latino immigrants but also from other parts of the world such as Ireland and Africa, complained to the state attorney general about six months ago and have been hoping to receive compensation for the lost hours. The matter is still being investigated, the worker and his attorney said.

Richard Klein, a former criminal defense attorney and currently the Bruce K. Gould professor of law at Touro Law School, said the public's interest in making sure corporations aren't taking advantage of workers is what prevailing wage laws are about.

"We do have relatively high wages here," Klein said. "We have to make sure that the law [is] being followed and taxpayers' money is not being wasted and workers are not being exploited."

With Víctor Manuel Ramos

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