Wage theft concerns aired at forum, council may take up ordinance

  • Jena Sujat, owner of Pinch, talks at the Northampton Committee on Community Resources meeting Monday about the impact that panhandlers have on peoples’ desire to shop downtown. CHRIS LINDAHL


  • From left, Northampton city councilors Maureen T. Carney, Dennis T. Bidwell and Gina-Louise Sciarra listen to public comment at a Committe on Community Resources meeting Monday. CHRIS LINDAHL

Published: 6/21/2016 12:55:25 AM

NORTHAMPTON — For Shelley Schieffelin, the choice of which restaurant to patronize has become a moral question.

“I’ve lived in Northampton for 30 years and have always really enjoyed eating at downtown restaurants,” Schieffelin said Monday. “I have to say, since I have become aware of issues at many of the restaurants, enjoying eating in downtown Northampton has taken a turn.”

Schieffelin said she first learned about local wage theft — the practice of employers denying workers the hourly wage, overtime pay or sick time they are legally entitled to — when some of the immigrant workers she tutors at the Center for New Americans said they were victims of the practice.

On Monday, she and a dozen others at the Committee on Community Resources forum called on the city to create a system to punish businesses found to have violated wage and hour laws, possibly by rescinding or not renewing their licenses.

And during the meeting Councilor Alisa F. Klein said that she is already heeding those calls.

Klein said she and Councilor Maureen T. Carney are in the early stages of crafting a wage-theft ordinance — one that could allow  the city to take action against labor law violators. She said they hope to submit the proposal to the full council for a vote by the end of the summer.

Monday’s was the second of four fact-finding forums to gather information for a report on the challenges present in the city’s economy.

While support for a wage theft ordinance was the most popular topic of discussion, one speaker said that the proliferation of panhandlers discourages people from shopping downtown.

Another suggested partnering with local businesses and artists to turn vacant storefronts into temporary art galleries, which was done in New Haven, Connecticut.

And a third voiced concern about the performance opportunities available to local musicians in downtown Northampton venues.

’Floating on the water’

Two former employees from the recently-closed Zen said that many of their coworkers at the Asian restaurant were paid less than the minimum wage.

Former server Bess Hepner said that the lowest-paid employee earned $5.50 per hour. The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $10. The minimum for tipped employees is $3.35 per hour, though their earnings must equal $10 per hour with tips.

Former Zen sushi chef Lin Geng said after eight years, he finally began earning the minimum wage at Zen just a few months before it closed.

Former Zen co-owner Eric Hong could not be reached for comment Monday evening. But he told the Gazette last month that the restaurant always followed wage laws.

Hepner and Geng said local enforcement of wage and hour laws is needed to ensure that workers are not being exploited. They said that such violations occur even in the progressive Pioneer Valley.

“I often hear this term ‘Happy Valley,’” Geng said. “For me this term is like a boat floating on the water — on the surface — underneath that surface there are many unhappy things happening.”

Tseng Shao Yu, who works at an Amherst restaurant, said it’s easy for many people to question why undocumented workers do not file complaints, or get a new job, go back to their home country or file a lawsuit against employers who are breaking the law.

Yu said undocumented immigrants who are denied fair compensation are often afraid to come forward. “I just want everybody to know how vulnerable these workers are,” she said.

Enforce existing laws

Jonah Vorspan-Stein said a local wage theft ordinance would simply ramp up the enforcement of existing laws. “The wage and hour laws in this town are laughed at,” he said. “All any of us are asking for is the laws that already exist be enforced.”

Vorspan-Stein said he has worked in food service jobs in the area for three years. He has been asked by managers to punch out for breaks only and then continue working, required to punch out after an eight-hour shift and continue working and denied overtime pay, he said.

The state attorney general’s office is charged with enforcing wage and hour laws. If an employer is found responsible for wrongdoing, the office may issue a civil citation and order that restitution and penalties be paid, seek criminal charges against the employer, or suggest the employee take civil action.

But the office notes on its website that it cannot investigate every complaint received.

“There’s a real shortage of mechanisms of enforcement,” said Harris Freeman, a labor studies professor at Western New England University School of Law in Springfield.

Freeman said during the forum that there is simply not enough funding for federal and state agencies to investigate and enforce wage violations.

He stressed that adding a city ordinance would create additional enforcement, not an extra layer of regulation. It would not cost nor inconvenience businesses that are already following the law, he said.

Leveling the playing field

Rose Bookbinder, coordinator at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, said the additional enforcement of wage and hour laws would benefit law-abiding businesses by leveling the playing field.

Communities such as Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea and Somerville have passed wage theft ordinances, she said.

Cities with such ordinances may require holders of liquor or food and beverage licenses to sign affidavits swearing they follow wage and hour laws. The local review processes can “fast-track” complaints to the attorney general’s office. Then, if a local business is found by that office to have violated the laws, the city may decide to punish the business, potentially by denying the license renewal, Bookbinder said.

“Adding the extra leverage of business licenses makes employers think a little more carefully about following the law,” she said.

After the meeting, Klein said she and Carney have not yet ironed out the particulars in the wage theft ordinance they are drafting.

“This would not only support workers … but it’s good for the citizens of Northampton because they feel confident that they’re eating at restaurants that follow the law and it helps the restaurants,” Klein said. “It benefits everybody.”

The next forum will take place at the Puchalski Municipal Building at 1 p.m. June 27 and will focus on the concerns and thoughts of downtown workers. The final forum will be held at 5:30 p.m. July 18 and focus on property owners, leasing, arts and tourism.

Written testimony will also be accepted via email to ppowers@northamptonma.gov, or by mail to City Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra, 210 Main St., Room 16, Northampton, MA 01060.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.

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