Last week, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced the indictment of a construction company, its principals, and others for theft of over $1.7 million, as well as for insurance fraud. Here’s the interesting part: The alleged theft in this case involved stealing from workers by illegally reducing their paychecks. Among other things, Parkside Construction and its managers allegedly altered time records in order to shave workers’ hours and thereby pay less money in wages than what was owed. Historically, that kind of malfeasance would get you a lawsuit, not get you arrested.
But things are changing, although not fast enough. This case exemplifies the leadership role increasingly played by a handful of prosecutors in pursuing predatory employers. Far more state and local prosecutors should take on this work; it is the right thing to do on the merits, and is especially needed now, as the federal government is abdicating its role of protecting our country’s workers.
Voters will soon have the chance to weigh in on this issue. There are scores of district-attorney seats in play in November, as well as over 30 state-attorney general elections. Criminal-justice advocates have rightly set their sights on these races, hoping to unseat some of the district attorneys whose “tough on crime” policies tend to be limited to offenses like drug violations or traffic infractions. Yet these contests also present an opportunity to elect leaders who understand the importance of judiciously using criminal law to address serious employer abuses, like wage theft, sexual assault, and utterly avoidable workplace injuries and fatalities.
In these terribly divided times, here is something we all should agree on: Work should pay, and crime shouldn’t. Too often, though, work doesn’t pay, and crime does, especially when the criminals are predatory employers who have cheated, endangered, or otherwise mistreated their workers.
What are the realities facing too many workers today? Here are the facts in some criminal cases we brought in the New York State Attorney General’s Office in the past five years. After a federal labor inspection, a Papa John’s franchisee created fake payroll records, including fictitious worker names, to avoid paying overtime and taxes. A home health agency simply didn’t pay people any wages at all for months at a time, even while hiring new aides. A construction contractor paid many of its employees in cash “off the books,” created false records, demanded kickbacks, and flouted workers’ compensation requirements, among others. The employers in these scenarios showed clearheaded and unmistakable intent to violate the law.