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Making Companies “Do the Right Thing,” Council Introduces Wage Theft Ordinance

Combating wage theft is the focus of a landscaping registration ordinance re-introduced at Monday night’s meeting of Princeton Council. If approved, the ordinance will require all commercial landscapers to register with the municipality and acknowledge awareness of federal and state wage theft laws.

These laws protect workers, many of whom are undocumented, from what Councilwoman Heather Howard called the “pernicious practices” of not being paid for all hours worked or sufficient overtime, earning less than the amount agreed upon, or not being paid at all. A public hearing on the ordinance has been set for Council’s July 14 meeting.

“This is a very important step we’re taking to protect the rights and safety of people working here,” Ms. Howard said. She described the work of the Human Services Commission’s Immigration Issues Subcommittee as “a unique collaboration between key government and community partners.”

Local resident John Heilner chaired the subcommittee. “Wage theft is under-reported because the folks who are victims fear losing their jobs or are undocumented and afraid of being reported,” he said, adding that existing wage theft laws do not discriminate against undocumented workers.

The ordinance also addresses workers’ compensation. Landscapers applying for registration, which they would be required to renew annually, would be notified of the state’s workers’ compensation insurance laws. The laws protect not only the health and safety of the workers, but also help homeowners, business owners, and landscapers avoid lawsuits. They would also be notified of the town’s leaf, brush, and log collection program. Under the revised ordinance, companies would lose the right to operate in Princeton if found to be in violation of the state and federal wage theft laws.

Princeton’s Human Services Director Elisa Neira said the ordinance will complement efforts already made to show the town’s commitment to human rights and strengthen relations between the police and the immigrant community. Birch Avenue resident Craig Garcia, who works with New Labor Education and Training Institute in New Brunswick, said wage theft is a problem all over the country. New Labor trained Princeton’s police force on how to address complaints related to wage theft laws earlier this year.

“I’m very proud of the work I’ve seen on this,” Mr. Garcia said. “The attention the town has given us is really commendable. Having a town like Princeton taking this big step would send a message to contractors that we need to do the right thing for our workers.” Mr. Garcia said the aim is not to shut down any businesses, but rather to promote honest and safe practices. “Since we passed [a similar ordinance] in New Brunswick, we’ve had an excellent response,” he said. “It makes companies do the right thing.”

Ms. Howard said that public forums in the future will address the issue of getting people to come forward to report wage theft. “We recognize that there is an education component that is really important,” she said. Mr. Heilner and Ms. Neira have been working on an informational booklet for workers.

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During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Sam Hamod targeted Council president Bernie Miller with a complaint about the agreement under which Princeton University makes financial contributions totaling $21.72 million over seven years to the municipality, in lieu of taxes. Mr. Hamod wanted to know how the agreement, which he said favors the University and it’s “octopus reach,” was arrived at. “I just want them to pay their fair share,” he said.

Mr. Miller said he would be happy to send him the terms of the agreement. Councilman Patrick Simon defended the process, saying the University is tax-exempt under state law. “The University is not obligated to give anything to the town,” he said, adding that other non-profit organizations pay nothing. Mr. Hamod said he disagreed with Mr. Simon.

Council’s next meeting is Monday, June 23 at 7 p.m.

 

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