New Mexico confronts backlog of wage-theft complaints

New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico is struggling to clear a backlog of about 1,900 complaints of wage theft linked to enforcement of the state’s minimum wage law.

Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley on Wednesday urged legislators to fund two new staff positions to investigate complaints of employers failing to adequately pay low-wage laborers. Six investigators currently attend to complaints linked mostly to restaurants, nursing homes and agriculture.

Uninvestigated cases piled up during the past administration of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, said Gabriela Guzman, staff attorney for the immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

“We are concerned if there are going to be sufficient resources to eliminate it,” she said of the backlog.

McCamley said he hopes to reduce the backlog to 800 cases before 2021 and to reduce the influx of claims through education seminars for employers and more opportunities for financial settlements between employers and workers.

“I can’t tell you when I’m going to get down to zero,” he said.

Labor officials under the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office in January 2019, have fulfilled major provisions of a 2018 settlement negotiated by labor- and immigrant-rights groups. McCamley said his agency now provides non-English language services for wage-theft claims and accepts wage complaints in remote communities through a network of more than 20 offices.

The original lawsuit accused the Department of Workforce Solutions of failing to enforce provisions of the state’s Minimum Wage Act by improperly dismissing complaints, failing to pursue claims over $10,000 and not holding employers liable for damages.

At the same time, some individual plaintiffs to the lawsuit are still waiting for their unpaid-wage complaints to be vetted for possible collection by the state.

More aggressive enforcement tactics were on display in September 2019 when the state and local officials sued the popular Albuquerque restaurant Hacienda Del Rio on accusations of failing to pay for overtime worked, taking unlawful payroll deductions and giving workers bad checks. The restaurant has requested that a judge dismiss the charges.

The state’s minimum wage rose to $9 an hour on Jan. 1 and increase in stages to $12 in mid-2023.

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