Temporary migrant workers wait for work outside a 7-Eleven in...

Temporary migrant workers wait for work outside a 7-Eleven in Farmingville. Credit: Newsday/Moises Saman

Each spring when I was a child in the 1970s and ’80s, migrant workers would pour out of a tottering flatbed truck into the dusty farmyard across from my family’s ranch home in Yaphank. There were about a dozen men, all from south of the U.S.-Mexico border, hired for the growing season.

Yaphank was — and remains today — a sleepy place, full of forest and field. Fifty years ago, farms dotted much of the landscape.

The men tended to acre upon acre of cabbage plants, working the fields under the unforgiving sun until harvest time in the fall. They performed this hard labor partly by hand and partly with tractors and irrigation pipes, enduring workdays that stretched from daybreak to nightfall.

They were the farm’s backbone, yet they were housed in a big, white barn that reeked of chemicals, likely pesticides and fertilizers. I’ve thought a lot about them lately. In many ways, they are like the men I’ve interviewed over the past eight months. 

I teach journalism at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, and since last summer, I’ve been examining wage violations in the restaurant industry, publishing stories for The Long Island Advocate, the Herbert School’s online publication for community-based reporting.

Last July, I attended a meeting of migrant workers and immigrant rights activists at the Workplace Project in Hempstead, organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network to spread the word that the Biden administration had drafted a memorandum preventing unauthorized immigrant workers from being deported after reporting abuses at their jobs.

Eight men, all from Central America and Mexico, spoke of a restaurant in Rockville Centre, Nick’s Pizza, where they had worked in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s as cooks, food preparers and dishwashers, toiling 12 hours a day or more, six days a week. Court documents show that then-owner Nicholas J. Angelis, of Rockville Centre, paid them less than minimum wage for years. 

In August 2011, the state Department of Labor ordered Nick's Pizza and Angelis to pay nearly $657,500 in back wages and state penalties, along with another $73,000 four years later. In 2021 and 2022, the Labor Department secured two state Supreme Court judgments in the workers’ favor, but they are yet to be paid.

On Feb. 8, the workers demonstrated in front of the restaurant as rush-hour traffic was starting to jam Sunrise Highway. A dozen protesters chanted in Spanish and English and waved handmade signs that called for an end to “wage theft.”

Wage theft — when employees are paid less than the required federal and state minimums — is widespread, costing some 2.4 million workers in the 10 most populous states in the country $8 billion a year, according to a 2017 study by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute. New York is among those states. One in six low-wage workers is a victim of wage theft, with an average loss per employee of $3,300 a year, according to the EPI study.

Immigrant workers here illegally, who comprise about 5% of the civilian workforce in the U.S., often are demonized in national politics. In truth, most are survivors who escaped endemic poverty, civil war, and the drug trade in their homelands, only to be stereotyped, ridiculed and, at times, physically assaulted in what they believed to be the land of hope. Having their wages stolen by their bosses only adds insult to injury.

Still, they keep working, harder than most of us can imagine.

This guest essay reflects the views of Scott Brinton, assistant professor of journalism at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication.

This guest essay reflects the views of Scott Brinton, assistant professor of journalism at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication.

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