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Cuomo urges Sandy workers, if underpaid, to file claims

Looks Great Services trucks are parked in a

Looks Great Services trucks are parked in a lot in Huntington. State labor law on how cleanup crews should be paid was repeatedly violated in the chaotic aftermath of superstorm Sandy, officials said. (April 1, 2013) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Wednesday urged workers who suspect they were underpaid during the Sandy cleanup to file a claim with the state Labor Department.

Workers have two years from their last date worked to file a complaint.

Responding to questions about prevailing-wage violations in the aftermath of Sandy during a visit to Long Island Wednesday, Cuomo said the state Labor Department continues to investigate whether workers were paid in line with state law after the superstorm struck.

"Anyone who believes they were entitled to prevailing wage and didn't receive it, should go to the New York State Department of Labor and they'll investigate the claims. If they're right, they will be compensated," Cuomo said after an event at Stony Brook University.

State Sen. Philip Boyle (R-Bay Shore) has said he thinks the law as currently written is inadequate to deal with emergency situations, such as the Oct. 29, 2012, storm. Cuomo said he was open to taking a look at the law, but that the solution might not lie in a legislative change. "I don't know if we just didn't enforce the prevailing wage law, or if the law was flawed. But we'll know when the Department of Labor looks at these situations. If we need to make changes, we'll make changes," he said.

A Newsday investigation reported earlier this week that state labor law governing how cleanup crews should be paid was violated following Sandy. As a result, some workers were underpaid on wages and benefits to which they were legally entitled, records and interviews show.

Four workers who've waited more than a year for a hearing into whether they were paid proper wages and benefits to help clear the Long Island Rail Road of Sandy debris learned Wednesday they'll have to wait another month.

The four worked for Custom Tree Care, a Topeka, Kan.-based subcontractor of Huntington-based Looks Great Services in November and December 2012. The hearing, scheduled for yesterday, was adjourned until Dec. 11 and 12 after a lawyer for Looks Great sought a different hearing officer.

The department has estimated the four workers together may be owed almost $60,000. For the four, the administrative hearing can't come soon enough.

"I hoped to have this money for Christmas," said William Moore, from Orange, Texas. His former co-worker Aaron Mathis, of Topeka, said: "I'm disappointed. I was looking forward to hearing some good news and getting the money -- it's holiday time and I need to pay some bills."

The department agreed to the adjournment after a request from a Looks Great attorney on Oct. 30, a spokesman said.

Looks Great attorney Mark Reinharz, with Bond, Schoeneck & King of Garden City, said the original hearing officer, Jerome Tracy, was the author of a departmental memorandum that offered opinions on whether prevailing wage applied to tree trimming and tree cleanup after a storm, which Looks Great saw as a conflict and asked that the case be reassigned. "The adjournment is not to delay, but to set a date with the new hearing officer," Reinharz said.

State Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), who wrote two letters over the summer to department Commissioner Peter Rivera urging speedy resolution for the workers, said he was stunned by the delay. Hannon said Wednesday he has yet to receive a response from the commissioner.

"I'm astounded that workers who came to help us in a storm more than a year ago are still being denied rights they're meant to have under statute," he said. "This is the epitome of the cliche, 'justice delayed is justice denied.' "

With Keith Herbert

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