Her baby will soon be due, so Modesta Toribio has to grudgingly admit she may not soon make her current career goal — New York’s supposedly mandatory $7.25 minimum wage — that she has been routinely denied for the past five years. She inched her salary up to $6.60 an hour from the starting $5 at a cut-rate Brooklyn clothing store mainly by pestering her bosses. Ms. Toribio has a brassy knack for that, but she has learned it takes a lot to best scheming employers.
Academic studies estimate that unscrupulous employers in New York City keep an extra billion dollars a year by defying New York State’s weak labor law and cheating timorous and ill-informed immigrant workers.
Ms. Toribio was both when she arrived from the Dominican Republic 10 years ago. But she evolved into a word-of-mouth investigator and organizer for the Make the Road New York community group. The organization has successfully worked with committed state inspectors to wring wage-theft judgments against scores of employers — $28,000 for a gouged fruit-stand peddler, $70,000 for 99-cent store workers, $400,000 from moguls squeezing the payroll at a sneaker chain.
New York needs a strong labor law like Arizona’s. Arizona is rightly notorious for its abusive anti-immigrant law. But its labor law seriously penalizes employers who retaliate against outspoken workers, and it provides confidentiality for whistle-blowers and faster, bigger damages for employers who ignore wage-theft judgments. A bill to toughen New York’s law awaits action by the Legislature, which is in its closing days, when the good and the ugly elbow for attention.“Albany could stop an awful lot of injustice,” Ms. Toribio says prayerfully. Her voice had a steely lilt on Friday when she talked other wage-cheated workers into going with her to Manhattan to picket a grocery store. She knows a “scared guy” there, a Mexican immigrant who earns $5 an hour with no vacation or overtime allowed in his 70-hour week. “The boss,” she says, “has to understand a worker is not alone.”