Gov. Martinez’s admin wasn’t protecting workers from wage theft. Workers fought back. And they won.

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Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán, Somos Un Pueblo Unido staff attorney

Susana Martinez is on her way out — there are only 320 days until we elect a new governor (!) — but that doesn’t mean New Mexicans have stopped holding her accountable for all the many ways she has set our state back in the last seven years.

As she prepares to leave office with one of the lowest approval ratings of any governor in state history, the people who have been affected most by her administration’s negligence and dishonesty are winning in the courts and reminding all hardworking people that when we’re united and organized we win.

Yesterday, the workers and workers’ rights organizations who earlier this year filed a lawsuit against the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS — the department that oversees workplace and labor issues in the state) claiming that the state was not enforcing wage theft laws, announced a settlement agreement with DWS that represents a huge win for workers.

Wednesday’s announcement of the settlement in the Capitol Rotunda

The class action settlement agreement is a win for New Mexico workers and is the result of years of work by the workers and workers’ rights organizations who advocated for passage of a 2009 law imposing stronger anti-wage theft protections, and who filed the 2017 lawsuit to require DWS to enforce those protections.

What’s wage theft? It’s when employers are: not paying overtime, not paying the minimum wage, having employees work off the clock, stealing tips, or simply refusing to pay any wages at all for work that has been performed.

The case, Olivas v. Bussey, was filed in January 2017 by four victims of wage theft and workers’ rights organizations (and friends of ProgressNow NM) El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos, New Mexico Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFÉ), Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ), and Somos Un Pueblo Unido. The plaintiffs claimed that DWS had failed to investigate and resolve wage claims concerning violations of New Mexico’s wage payment laws.

From the Santa Fe New Mexican:

The agreement, negotiated during the last several weeks and finalized Tuesday, came in a lawsuit brought in January by advocates for the employees, including the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe-based organization with a focus on immigration.

The agreement, which resolves accusations that the agency failed to enforce provisions of state law by improperly dismissing complaints, failing to pursue claims over $10,000 and not holding employers liable for damages, means Workforce Solutions will have to investigate more types of claims, including some that go back several years.

It also compels the state to pursue stiffer penalties against businesses of up to three times the amount of lost wages when there is a finding of employer fault.

Low-wage workers – who are particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by their employers – are more organized and powerful than ever. The settlement is indicative of their success in fighting the unfair practices of dishonest employers, and exercising their right to hold their government accountable.

Again, from the New Mexican:

Attorney Elizabeth Wagoner with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said Workforce Solutions, for instance, has never sought back payment from businesses of three times the wages owed, even though that is a provision of the law. That gave employers little incentive to do the right thing, she said, because there would be no financial punishment for ignoring the law.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Jose “Pancho” Olivas, spoke Wednesday. He brought the complaint after he said a restaurant in Farmington denied him more than $10,000 in back wages for regular and overtime shifts over eight months.

He asked the state to help him collect $15,000 for himself and $25,000 for his wife, but the Department of Workforce Solutions refused the case because of the high dollar amounts, asking they go directly to court. Under the settlement, his case and others will be reopened and investigated, though a finding could be months away.

“Because of this settlement, both me and my wife will be able to move forward with our complaints,” Olivas said. “It’s a lot of money.”

In a press release sent by the workers and organizations who brought the lawsuit, Olivas expanded on what he had to say during the press conference:

“Workers need state agencies like the Department of Workforce Solutions to level the playing field,” said Jose “Pancho” Olivas, a member of Somos Gallup, Somos Un Pueblo Unido’s affiliate in McKinley County and plaintiff in the complaint. “I am very proud to have joined other workers in this lawsuit to ensure that our government is doing its job and working for the people of our state. Because of this settlement, me and my wife will be able to move forward with our complaints and I know workers in other rural communities like Gallup will too. We work hard for every single dollar and will not hesitate to stand up for what is right when the stakes for our families are so high.”

José “Pancho” Olivas speaking at the press conference

The organizations who brought the lawsuit are working on a portal for victims of wage theft throughout New Mexico to more easily obtain information about how they can recuperate stolen wages. And, as part of the settlement agreement, DWS will begin a statewide media campaign to inform people about their rights under this settlement agreement.

ProgressNow NM will keep you posted on these developments and distribute this information as it becomes available so that if you or someone you know is the victim of wage theft you can have the resources to fight back.

In the meantime, if you or someone you know has been the victim of wage theft, contact Somos Un Pueblo UnidoEl CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos, or the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.