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United Worker Center of New Mexico Organizer Lorenzo Ramirez says Gov. Susana Martinez's administration is turning away hundreds of workers with legitimate wage theft complaints.
"This hurts working families and lets the bad-apple employers off the hook," says Ramirez.
He and about 50 other activists and employees staged a lunchtime rally in Santa Fe on Wednesday. The group was joined by state lawmaker Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque.
"It is very troubling to me that [the state Department of Workforce Solutions] is summarily rejecting, for improper reasons, wage claims filed by workers," says Garcia. In 2009, Garcia sponsored a law that strengthened state wage-theft provisions and allowed employees to seek up to three years of wages and overtime pay. The law also allows workers to obtain three times the amount as a way to punish employees who do not adhere to state and federal employment laws.
Nohemi Becerra, a single mother who depends on fair paychecks, claims a local restaurant still owes her $1,500, but the Department of Workforce Solutions won't accept her claim because she presented a Mexican government issued matricular consular to prove her identify.
That's not required, according to Somos Un Pueblo Unido's Executive Director Marcela Diaz, who noted that she wants to see the division empowered to aggressively go after wage thieves. Research shows one in four New Mexicans have been victimized..
"Passports are official documents accepted by banks and other government offices," says restaurant worker Mayte Flores. Her own $2,600 claim was rejected because she did not have local identification.
Other workers claim the administration won't accept claims over $10,000 or for claims that extend beyond 12 months, despite that the law provides workers up to three years of protection.
"I ask that this injustice be stopped," says Norma Luna. Luna says she's behind on her rent and other bills because her paychecks bounced. "It isn't fair that we have to leave our children to go to work and earn money honestly with the sweat of our brow so that at the end, our wages are stolen from us."
Following the rally, Garcia sent Attorney General Gary King a request for a legal opinion on the department's new policies. Protesters say they planned to submit petitions signed by low-wage workers to demand the governor enforce the law and hold employers accountable.
In this audio interview Diaz explains her group's frustration with the new policies.