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Recent settlements over illegally low wages are part of a concerted effort by New York to protect immigrant workers who fear their status might be affected by bringing such matters to court, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said last week. An agreement between the State Attorney General’s Office and Food Emporium, in which the grocery store chain agreed to pay $3 million in back wages to its underpaid deliverymen, is one such example. “There is a fear on the part of immigrants because there is a perception that there is a risk involved in bringing the government into these type of things.” Spitzer said. “We worked hard to get through this problem.” The deliverymen, most of whom are recent immigrants from West Africa, were allegedly paid between $1.25 to $1.75 per hour by Food Emporium through the companies with which it contracted for the deliverymen, Hudson Delivery and Chelsea Trucking; and The Great American Delivery Company. State law requires that delivery people be paid $3.20 per hour, plus whatever tips they earn. Under the settlement, the Attorney General’s Office will disperse the $3 million to affected deliverymen who file an application with the office requesting wages due. Calculations based on the number of hours each deliveryman worked and the amount of applications received will determine each individual award. While Spitzer complimented Food Emporium, and its parent company The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, for its cooperation in reaching the settlement, he points out that the case underscores the problem of employers who are too willing to exploit immigrants’ fear of retribution if they bring their complaints to the authorities. Catherine K. Ruckelshaus, litigation director of the National Employment Law Project, the non-profit legal organization to which the deliverymen first brought their claim, confirms that the men were anxious about bringing their case to court. “It’s a huge problem,” said Ruckelshaus. “Even if these workers are being exploited, they would rather be here making a little bit of money than be sent home.” The Food Emporium case makes this point clearly: The original plaintiff had second thoughts about bringing a complaint, only agreeing to participate in the lawsuit after a dozen co-workers were fired. Faty Ansoumana approached Ruckelshaus in early 1999. Initially discouraged by his co-workers from pursuing his case, Ansoumana signed on as one of nine name plaintiffs after 12 deliverymen were fired for going out on strike. M. Patricia Smith, chief of the Labor Bureau at the Attorney General’s Office, became involved in the case around the time the striking men were fired. She made the point that immigrant fears of retribution are unwarranted under New York State labor laws, which protect all workers, regardless of their citizenship status. “We don’t ask whether a worker is legal or not,” said Smith. “New York State labor laws protect you if you work here. Just as we wouldn’t ask someone’s marital status, we wouldn’t ask their immigrant status because it’s not relevant.” BACK PAY The Attorney General’s push to protect immigrant workers began in earnest last August, when the state entered into settlements, similar to the one with Food Emporium, with two Manhattan greengrocers, Lucky Farm and 118 First Avenue Food & Vegetable Corp. In those cases, the state was able to obtain nearly $100,000 in back pay on behalf of workers who were predominantly Mexican immigrants. David G. Januszewski, the Cahill Gordon & Reindel attorney who represented Food Emporium, said that, while he could not speak for all employers, his client did not intimidate or exploit its workers. “These individuals were not employees of Food Emporium. They were employees of outside delivery service companies,” Januszewski said. “So the responsibility for payment of the workers rested with the outside companies, not with Food Emporium.” Januszewski believes that if Food Emporium did not settle, it would have prevailed on summary judgment or at trial. Nevertheless, after discussions with the Attorney General, Food Emporium resolved to settle the matter to avoid the uncertainties of litigation. OTHER BUSINESSES In addition to the Food Emporium case, the garment industry and several businesses in Chinatown have been targeted by the Attorney General’s Office for unfair labor practices. In the past, individual Chinatown business owners have faced criminal charges for systematically deducting 5 percent of their employees’ wages, a practice that Smith says has been reported to be commonplace in that part of the city. The National Employment Law Project has just filed a case alleging underpayment against a Queens construction company on behalf of immigrant workers from India and Bangladesh, according to Ruckelshaus. The drive to obtain unpaid wages for Food Emporium’s predominantly West African immigrant workers will also continue. According to Ruckelshaus, actions are pending against both delivery companies involved in the Food Emporium case. Gristede’s supermarket and drug store chain Duane Reade also remain as defendants in the class action suit because the delivery contractors also provided those stores with deliverymen.

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