On the historic anniversary of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Comptroller John Liu announced a victory for immigrant workers in New York City.
After what he called a long investigation, Mascon Restoration, a College Point-based construction company operating in four Manhattan sites under a Department of Housing Preservation and Development contract, was ordered to pay a $1.2 million settlement for unpaid wages and benefits to its workers.
The company pled guilty to a felony charge for falsifying salary documents and failing to pay prevailing wages. It must also pay $75,000 to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office for the cost of the investigation and prosecution, and $243,880 to the state Labor Department for underpayment of unemployment insurance.
Except for $107,120 of the $1.2 million settlement, which is owed to the city for a civil penalty, the rest of the money is available for other workers who file claims of unfair wages.
At a press conference announcing the settlement last Thursday, Liu stressed that workers are covered under state labor laws regardless of their citizenship status.
“We know that immigrants are often afraid to talk with government officials, but it is important that we get the word out,” Liu said, adding that 46 percent of the city’s workforce is foreign-born. “We are encouraging these workers to come forward and claim their unpaid wages.
“The intimidation or exploitation of workers, immigrant or otherwise, will not be tolerated,” he said.
According to Liu’s office, workers at Mascon were paid $60 to $70 a day, although most were entitled to $150 a day plus benefits, and those working on high beams were owed $700 a day plus benefits.
The investigation was launched after three workers at a Mascon construction site acquired a publication from the comptroller’s office educating them on appropriate wages for their work, and requesting that those being mistreated come forward.
A representative from Liu’s office said employers are asked to post the publication around their work sites, but most do not.
One worker, who chose to go by the name Lanssay, immigrated from West Africa in 1989, and was available for an interview off-camera, through an English translator.
Lanssay, who worked in demolition at a Mascon site, said he received the flyer from the comptroller’s office, “and at that time they were given information and proof that they were not paid a proper salary that was by law what they should be paid.”
He and two other workers summoned the bravery to file a claim with the comptroller’s office when they heard that they could be paid the money they were owed, Lanssay said through the translator.
When he asked his employer to pay him the prevailing wage, his boss refused, the worker said.
“It happened in other places before, but they were not given the opportunity to give the proof and get compensation,” the translator said, when Lanssay was asked if he was exploited by previous employers. “That’s why they’re here.”
According to Liu’s office, after six years the money from the $1.2 million that is not claimed by workers will be put in the city’s general fund.
Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn said that in addition to encouraging exploited workers, legal and illegal, to come forward, the settlement should send a message to employers across the city.
“I hope it reverberates to everyone who is hiring [from the] immigrant population and think that they can exploit them without anything happening to them,” Williams said. “Let it be known that we are watching and we’re going to use whatever tools we have under our belt to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
To file a wage claim with the comptroller’s office, call (212) 669-4443. All calls are confidential.