NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–Another victim of wage theft has successfully recovered unpaid wages dating back to 2010 under the New Brunswick Wage Theft Ordinance.

When Irene Lopez left her position at La Hacienda Food and Grocery Store at 251 French Street in 2010, she requested that the balance of her wages be paid upon her departure.

But she did not receive them.

“From the moment I left, I asked for what was owed and they said they weren’t going to pay me anything.” Lopez told New Brunswick Today with the assistance of a translator.

Lopez soon realized that speaking with her former employer would not resolve her wage dispute, so she initiated a formal complaint in court.

According to court documents, a judgment dated September 9, 2011 awarded Lopez an amount of $10,057.

A formal agreement reached between Lopez and Alma Montesino, owner of La Hacienda, established a payment schedule of $1000 a month, or $250 a week, effectively resolving the uncured wages within a year.

Lopez said the restaurant did not adhere to the court ordered payment schedule and instead dispersed infrequent and sporadic payments of a few hundred dollars at a time.

By 2014, Lopez was still owed over $5,000 in unpaid wages from La Hacienda.

It was then that Lopez contacted local non-profit Unity Square and the labor rights advocacy group New Labor for assistance to recover the totality of her judgment.

Unity Square and New Labor have successfully supported other restaurant workers in settling wage complaints, and were instrumental in the passage of the city’s historic anti-wage-theft ordinance.

This first of its kind in New Jersey, the local law allows the city to deny the renewal of operating licenses, issued annually on December 1st, if any wage theft claims against the business are not resolved.

Because a business cannot remain open without an operating license, the ordinance incentivizes not only adherence to federal and state standards for minimum wage and for overtime, but also settlement of any wage disputes in a timely fashion.

Lopez says Unity Square and New Labor helped her with “everything,” like notifying the city clerk about the outstanding judgment balance, as well as staging a public demonstration in front of the restaurant in conjunction with Campaign against Wage Theft National Day of Action on November 19. 

In an email sent to New Labor dated November 28, City Clerk Dan Torrisi announced Lopez’ dispute had finally been resolved.

“Today I received documentation from the owner of La Hacienda – Alma Montesinos, that indicates that on 11/19 and 11/21 she made payments to the Middlesex County Superior Court totaling $5, 531.50,” reads the email.

This is less than two weeks before La Hacienda’s operating license was set to be denied for renewal due to the unresolved claim.

“La Hacienda paid more in the two weeks before their license was set to expire than they did in the few years since the judgment had been rendered,” says Jason Rowe, director of Unity Square.

“This shows why the [New Brunswick Wage Theft] ordinance is effective and needed.”

Rowe also notes that it is the victims of wage theft that are the driving force behind these campaigns.  Unity Square and New Labor merely provide resources and advocacy to those that request it.

“I feel so happy. There has been justice.” Lopez says.

She also wants to remind the community that options are available to other victims of wage theft.

“Don’t just sit there. Take a stand for yourself. Get the support. There are different groups that can help you,” she said.

Rowe also notes that most instances of wage theft end up with a satisfactory resolution between the employer and employee, not by way of the court.

“In any circumstance where there is wages due and a community member comes to us for assistance, we make every effort to contact the employer and initiate a constructive conversation between the employer and the employee.”

Rowe shared these tips with New Brunswick Today to protect yourself from wage theft:

  • Know your rights under the law. Many commonplace practices, like paying a fixed, weekly rate regardless of how many hours are worked, are commonplace in the food and retail industry but are illegal.
  • As of January 1st, 2015, minimum wage in New Jersey is $8.38 per hour.
  • Keep records of the hours you work and what you are getting paid. Hold onto pay stubs. If you are paid in cash, keep bank statements showing deposits or photo copies of checks.
  • If you feel like you have been a victim of wage theft, call or drop into Unity Square or New Labor. All conversations are confidential. A representative of the organization will help you review your options and provide resources to you should you choose to recover your wages.

Alma Montesinos, owner of La Hacienda, could not be reached for comment.

Unity Square Community Center is located at 81 Remsen Avenue and can be reached at (732) 545-0329

New Labor is located at 103 Bayard St., 2nd Floor and can be reached at (732)-246-2900.