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LYNN — More than four years after the City Council voted unanimously to pass an ordinance against wage theft, establishing a committee dedicated to handling cases of missing or incomplete pay, the city’s Wage Theft Advisory Committee has returned from their pandemic hiatus.
At their first meeting since the pandemic, which took place last week, the committee voted to elect local union organizer Justin Anshewitz as committee chair. Anshewitz said in an interview Monday morning that the organization is currently trying to establish themselves as a city resource for employees and contractors who are either not being paid for their work, being paid under minimum wage, or only receiving partial or illegally delayed compensation for their work.
“We wanted to reestablish now that the pandemic is mostly over, or at least manageable,” Anshewitz said. “We have to educate the community, and let them know that there is a resource in Lynn, that if you are a victim of wage theft, you can come to us, the worker center, or any other resource that’s available to help resolve the issue.”
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office provides a list of all wage theft complaints and enforcements in the state since 2015 on its Fair Labor Division webpage. According to this data, there have been 162 reports of either non-payment of wages or violation of the state’s “prevailing wage” statute mandating minimum wage requirements on public construction projects.
Anshewitz said that lack of payment for construction workers remains one of the most prevalent forms of wage theft. He said that the long-spread payments associated with construction work make construction contractors especially vulnerable to non-payment.
“I can speak mostly about construction, and I know in a lot of construction projects, it is incredibly prevalent, that people are sometimes not paid what they’re owed, sometimes weeks and months at a time,” Anshewitz said. “The contractor doesn’t get paid weekly, or bi-weekly, they get paid, 30 days out, 45 days out, 90 days out […] if there’s some holes up on the higher tier of contractor list, and they’re not getting the money, well how would they handle that? Oftentimes they push it down and make it the workers’ problem.”
City Attorney Jim Lamanna, who serves as legal counsel for the committee, said that workers often have trouble attempting to file small claims for non-payment at Lynn District Court— that’s where he comes in.
“They really have only one shot once they go to court, and if they don’t have all their paperwork together to submit to the clerk, and the employer comes in with their records, the employee may say, ‘Well, I have that at home’ or ‘I don’t have that.’ … the committee gives them guidance on how they can better prepare themselves if they go to court,” Lamanna said.
One of the benefits of the city’s wage theft ordinance, Lamanna said, is the fact that it allows the city to deny promised tax breaks to developers or businesses found to have truthful or “egregious” wage theft complaints against them. Lamanna said that companies guilty of wage theft can also be barred from bidding on city projects under the 2018 ordinance. Additionally, the city can bar those in violation of the ordinance from obtaining business licenses.
“The city, through this ordinance, has the ability to pull permits and licenses themselves,” Lamanna said. “If there was a particular business, whether it was a taxi cab business, whether it was a restaurant that’s licensed, if it was found that repeated complaints were meritorious, against the same employee, the city could pull the license as part of this ordinance.”
Lamanna said that the watchdog committee plans on building a closer bond with the Attorney General’s Office this December to better enforce the wage theft ordinance. He said that Lynn, in comparison with its North Shore neighbors, is leading the way on this issue.
“There’s a whole unit at the AGs office that’s dedicated to looking at waitstaff complaints and having them come in and give us the guidance and suggestions and tips on how to be as effective at a local level as we can be, I think it is a great first step,” Lamanna said. “This ordinance is the strongest wage theft ordinance in the state, or at least it was at the time, and I don’t believe any other city’s fully implemented an ordinance of this kind.”
Anthony Cammalleri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org