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Wage Theft is Still a Thing


Despite new laws, unscrupulous contractors still find ways to hold construction workers down.

Wage theft. It’s the tried-and-true tactic of some non-union contractors in their effort to take the most possible money from a project.


Yes, wage theft is illegal. In 2021, spurred on by legislators like State Senator Jessica Ramos and City Councilmember Francisco Moya, New York passed a wage theft prevention law that actually holds unscrupulous contractors liable when they steal from workers. Previous versions of the law had been weak. The new law strips away protections that had allowed thieving bosses to hide from prosecution.


Theoretically, those days are over. But in truth they are not. Wage theft remains a scourge on vulnerable communities who don’t have the money or standing to defend themselves against it.

Wage theft remains a scourge on vulnerable communities who don’t have the money or standing to defend themselves against it. 


Jose Blanco, pictured here in an illustration done for the New York Times,  arrived in El Paso with his family, who he feared would not survive if they had stayed in Venezuela. His story is typical of people who come to New York and end up being victimized by wealthy contractors. -- Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Case Study: Jose Blanco

In a recent New York Times feature that put a human face on the experience of homelessness, we meet Jose Blanco. His story is typical. He’s a person made vulnerable by life circumstance who ends up being exploited by a wealthy contractor seeking to pad his own pockets.


Mr. Blanco fled the very troubled, dangerous nation of Venezuela with his wife and two children, ages 3 and 6. In the Times piece he spoke of Venezuela’s lack of basic products necessary for living, and dearth of food. His family could not stay there and survive. They went to Peru, then headed for the US. On their trek they spent eight days in the Central American jungle, a harrowing portion of which includes the Darien Gap, a treacherous 61-mile stretch from Colombia to Panama that was also described in a separate New York Times story.


Along that trip, the family was robbed, but also received largess that helped them continue. Finally, they arrived in El Paso, Texas, where they were detained for eight more days. The family was then put on a bus to New York City where they were housed in a Times Square hotel with other migrants in what Mr. Blanco described as a “prison” for his children.


Mr. Blanco's family — like the one pictured here — traversed the notorious and deadly Darien Gap, a 60-plus mile stretch of jungle in Colombia and Panama that was featured in a recent New York Times story. -- Federico Rios for the New York Times

Then Mr. Blanco heard of a construction opportunity in Vermont. He had some construction experience from his time in Venezuela. Vermont was a place he’d never heard of, but he learned it was close enough to get to by bus. Finally, he thought, he could earn some money for his family and help lift them out of their years-long struggle for survival.


Somehow Mr. Blanco made his way to Vermont and the construction project where he was quickly put to work. He was there for nearly three weeks. He worked on a job site in cold and snow like he’d never experienced before. The work was physical and tough, and he felt good that he pulled his weight. But after the three weeks he still had not been paid. Sensing he had been wasting his time, he returned to New York City and his family with nothing to show for his three weeks of work.


Why had Mr. Blanco not been paid? It’s very likely he was working as a day laborer, or as what Dr. James Parrot of the New School called a “misclassified temporary employee,” in an interview with Union-Built Matters. By mis-classifying full-time workers as temps, contractors evade paying taxes, health coverage, unemployment insurance and any other benefits for that worker. Still, most day laborers expect to leave the workday with cash in their pocket, or to at least receive a cash payment at the end of the week. Mr. Blanco received nothing after three weeks.


Stories like Mr. Blanco’s are heard commonly from immigrant workers victimized by non-union construction contractors. When asked why contractors will take advantage of vulnerable workers like this, Councilmember Moya answers plainly, “Because they can.” He explains that, “unscrupulous contractors see vulnerable workers like this as fodder for profit, not as valuable human beings who have hopes, dreams and rights of their own.”


Mr. Blanco worked for three weeks on a Vermont construction site much like the one pictured here from Burlington. Despite likely expecting daily cash payments, Mr. Blanco was never compensated by the contractor for his work. -- Burlington Free Press, Joel Banner BAIRD/FREE PRESS

The way to squelch this sort of abuse, he explained, is through passing better laws and promoting unions. “So many benefits we enjoy at work today were made possible by unions. The five-day work week, health benefits, worker protection, paid sick leave. All of it started on a union picket line.”


To further illustrate the supreme selfishness of victimizing vulnerable people, consider this: the money those non-union bosses save by stealing from immigrants does not make the real estate they’re building any more affordable for buyers and renters. In fact, studies show that when contractors steal from workers, the costs to the public are actually much higher. No, any money those contractors “save” through wage theft goes straight into their own pockets.


It’s helpful to learn the stories, to see the human faces, to hear the names of the real people who are victimized by the powerful seeking to pad their wealth by any means. Stories like Jose Blanco’s help us see the authentic impact of the abuse practiced by non-union contractors who cheat to get rich.


We can stop rewarding their behavior when we’re shopping for real estate in New York City by asking our agent, “Was this building built by unions?”

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