SANTA FE, N.M. — A legal settlement has been reached to shore up New Mexico’s enforcement of laws against wage theft by employers who fail to pay or fully pay workers, a coalition of workers’ rights groups announced on Wednesday.
The settlement, if approved by a state district court judge, resolves accusation that the Department of Workforce Solutions failed to enforce provisions of the state’s Minimum Wage Act by improperly dismissing complaints, failing to pursue claims over $10,000 and not holding employers liable for damages.
It would require the Division of Labor Relations pursue more accusations of wage theft, make it easier for non-English speakers and others to file claims, and force negligent employers to pay back unpaid wages three-fold, the advocacy groups said.
New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty attorney Elizabeth Wagoner says more than 500 claims of wage theft are filed with the state each year. She estimated that state officials previously denied one out of every four complaints for improper reasons, while more claims were never filed because of administrative and language barriers.
Wagoner said the settlement gives wage workers “a fair shot to actually get the wages they are owed and hold employers accountable.”
She said the state has agreed to revisit claims of wage theft from the previous three years that may have been mishandled, and longer ago in some instances.
Jose Olivas, one of four plaintiffs seeking unpaid wages in the original lawsuit, said he hopes to recover $15,000 in unpaid overtime from a restaurant in Farmington where he worked as a line cook as a result of the settlement, and that his wife is seeking $25,000 in unpaid wages from the same business.
“It’s a good amount of money, so it does hurt you” no to get paid, said the 43-year-old father.
In a written statement, the Department of Workforce Solutions said it had worked in good faith on the settlement and takes seriously the responsibility to investigate and resolve claims.
The agency said some disputed policies and procedures have been in place since before Gov. Susana Martinez took office in 2011, without specifying which ones. Plaintiffs said the state failed to effectively enforce elements of a 2009 law designed to facilitate wage-theft investigations.
Provisions of the proposed settlement include:
—Lifting the $10,000 on claims of missing wages.
—Extends the statute of limitations for filing a claim from one year to three years.
—The Division of Labor Relations must seek damages on behalf of workers against employers.
—The state must provide Spanish-language claims forms and provide interpretation services for other languages.
Original plaintiffs in the case were joined by El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, New Mexico Comunidades en Accion y de Fe, Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, and Somos Un Pueblo Unido.
This story has been corrected to show the announcement was made Wednesday and corrects the name of New Mexico Comunidades en Accion y de Fe.