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Study: Day Laborers Underpaid, Abused

A Seton Hall University study has found that many day laborers in New Jersey are routinely underpaid and in some cases assaulted, due in large part because of the underground nature of the industry and the workers' immigration status and limited English often make it easy for their employers to ignore labor laws.
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A Seton Hall Law School report has found that nearly half of all day laborers across New Jersey have not been paid for their work at least once during the last year.

The report by the New Jersey-based university offered several anecdotal examples to confirm its findings: A day laborer in Elizabeth, N.J. spent two weeks hauling tar in the heat on a roofing job. When it was time to get paid, the contractor refused to give him a dime. When another day laborer from Orange, N.J. asked why he had not been paid for a landscaping job, his boss punched him and left him on the side of the Garden State Parkway. In Freehold, N.J., a temporary restaurant worker was hit in the side of the head with a cast iron skillet when he asked his boss for overdue pay.

Researchers interviewed more than 100 day laborers and found workers are routinely underpaid and denied overtime. More than a quarter also reported being physically assaulted by their bosses.

"It's pretty brutal," said Bryan Lonegan, a Seton Hall Law professor, immigration attorney and co-author of the report. "Day laborers are accepting their fate as a transactional cost for working in the United States."

Most day laborers are illegal immigrants who meet their employers on street corners and negotiate their day's pay in cash, according to the study by Seton Hall Law's Center for Social Justice. The underground nature of the industry and the workers' immigration status and limited English often make it easy for their employers to ignore labor laws.

The survey found 48 percent of day laborers were not paid for their work at least once in the last year and 54 percent reported being paid less than promised. Ninety-four percent were not paid overtime when it was due.

The work is also dangerous. The survey found 26 percent of day laborers were injured severely enough on a job to miss work. More than a quarter of those surveyed also said they had been assaulted by an employer, though only 14 percent reported the crime to police.

Under U.S. law, workers must be paid, even if they are in the country illegally, Lonegan said. Assault is always against the law, no matter the victim's immigration status.

"A lot of them have no idea they have legal rights," Lonegan said.

The report recommends that New Jersey update its wage theft laws and allow day workers to file complaints directly with municipal courts. State labor department officials said it already allows immigrant-rights groups and religious organizations to help illegal immigrants file grievances.
Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) said the Seton Hall study shows changes need to be made to enforce the state's wage laws.

"This report should be an eye opener for everyone in New Jersey, for the Legislature and for the administration and its labor department," Quijano said.

The study found that the cities of Elizabeth and Orange had the highest number of wage theft and labor law violations among the seven municipalities surveyed. Morristown and Bridgeton, in Cumberland County, which have community organizations that advocate for day laborers, had the fewest violations.

Rosa Chilquillo, project manager of Pathways to Work in Morristown, said her 2-year-old group connects day laborers and employers. So far, everyone has been paid. But nearly every day laborer has a story about getting stiffed on a job, she said.

"Mostly it's contractors. They are out there for their own personal profit," Chilquillo said. "They really don't care about treating workers with respect."

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June 18, 2019, 8:44 am PDT

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