Madeline Stocker photo
Unidad Latina en Accion outside the Legislative Office Building in Hartford (Madeline Stocker photo)

Gov. Dannel P Malloy may have signed a bill increasing the amount businesses who underpay their workers are fined, but that won’t stop businesses from exploiting their employees, a New Haven-based immigrant rights group said Wednesday.

The bill Malloy signed into law requires, rather than allows, a court to award double damages if a business is found guilty of underpaying its workers.

While this legislation may make some amends, members of Unidad Latina en Accion are calling on lawmakers and Malloy to address what they believe to be the more systemic issues with wage theft — namely the fact that businesses have and will continue to exploit workers no matter what the law says, because the current penalties are not enough of a deterrent.

“It’s a long way to what we need and what we’re looking for,” Unidad member and New Haven worker Edgar Sandoval said. “The law has always been there, you have to find a way for people to apply the laws, not for them just to be written down on paper.”

Sandoval worked at a restaurant in New Haven, where he says he was being refused overtime pay.

His story is one of many, a number of which were captured in a report released earlier this year by the organization. The report highlights stories of workers across the state who were earning minimum wage and were sometimes physically threatened by their employers.

John Lugo, one of the leaders of Unidad, said that he wants to see employers who exploit their workers charged with criminal behavior.

“You go to a supermarket and you steal something; you get charged for larceny in the sixth degree,” Lugo said. “But then in the case of [workers] who are working long hours and aren’t getting paid, you go to the police and they say, ‘it’s a civil matter.’ I work long hours, with that money I feed my family. What is the difference between stealing wages and stealing a service?”

He said Goodfellas, an Italian restaurant in New Haven, was a perfect example of why the state needs to move past this type of legislation and instead challenge exploitation as it happens.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor fined the owner of Goodfellas $1,870 for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay four workers $23,636 in wages.

Lugo said the civil penalty was a mere slap on the wrist.

“How effective is the law?” Lugo said. “Maybe you’re forcing the employers to pay, but at the same time they keep doing the same thing. It’s a perfect example of a repetitive offender.”

Earlier this year in May, five former workers from Goodfellas filed a federal lawsuit against the restaurant alleging wage theft, harassment, and racketeering offenses. The restaurant has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint because aside from suing the wrong entity, it says the allegations made by the former employees are false.

“Mere allegations of ‘extreme and outrageous conduct’ are not sufficient to support a claim and no factual support has been provided,” the Goodfellas defendants say in court documents.

In 2013, the Connecticut Department of Labor recovered $6.5 million in unpaid wages from employers across the state. In an attempt to bring down these numbers, Unidad is advocating a wage lien bill, as well as publicly protesting businesses that have had similar complaints filed against them.

“We need to do more work,” Sandoval said. “We need to let them know that we are here, and the law has to follow. It doesn’t matter where we came from, what race we are. We deserve to get paid like any human being.”

Lugo said that mobilizing community members has proven difficult because many workers hold multiple jobs to support family members. But he said his organization will continue to try and spread their message.

“When you mobilize the community and we expose these people to these actions, they change their ways,” Lugo said, adding that Unidad currently has over 200 members.

Connecticut is currently one of three states that holds employers found violating wage laws liable for “double damages.” Ten states, including Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont, hold their employers liable for three times the amount unpaid in damages.

“This is an issue that not only happens within Connecticut, but happens all the way around the United States,” Unidad member Karim Suarez said. “Not only are employers not paying their employees, but they’re also robbing the state, they’re robbing taxes, and it effects everyone in every way.”