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New York's Hidden Crime Wave

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And we thought crime in New York City was low. According to the NYPD just 418 robberies were reported in New York last week, along with 695 incidents of grand larceny. Not bad for a city of more than 8 million people. But the rosy numbers overlook a devastating series of thefts that never make it into the police statistics: last week the city may have experienced just 375 burglaries but it also saw an estimated 317,263 cases of employer wage theft from their own low wage workers. More than $18.4 million were stolen from wages in that week alone. And because the wage violations are systematic and ongoing, the crimes recur every week throughout the year.

The shocking new wage theft data come from research [pdf] unveiled this morning by the National Employment Law Project. After a rigorous study involving thousands of front-line workers in New York's low wage industries, researchers documented the prevalence of New York City's workplace violations for the first time.

The study reveals a crime wage centered on the city's most vulnerable workers. More than one in five workers in the city's low-wage industries was paid less than the minimum wage. More than three in four were denied the overtime pay they were legally owed. When workers tried to stand up for themselves (for example, by filing a complaint with a government agency or attempting to organize a union) they faced a high risk of illegal employer retaliation: being fired, getting their hours cut, or having the boss threaten to call immigration authorities. Not surprisingly, many workers decided to remain silent, even as they continued to work in dangerous conditions or saw their earnings stolen.

Imagine the destructive impact on New York's families and communities. Although the average worker in the city's low-wage industries earns just $20,644 a year, they lost an average 15 percent of that to wage theft. That amounts to an average $3,016 annually stolen from some of the lowest-income working families in the city. As the authors point out,

"low-income families spend the large majority of their earnings on basic necessities, such as food, clothing and housing. Their expenditures circulate through local economies, supporting businesses and jobs. Wage theft robs local communities of this spending, and ultimately limits economic growth and vitality in our city's neighborhoods."

All of New York is poorer as a result.

New York State is already the home of the some of the nation's most innovative efforts to detect and remedy workplace violations. As the study's authors note, these efforts should be expanded and institutionalized -- an even more urgent project now that it looks like New York's energetic Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith may finally be heading to Washington. But the city must also act independently.

New York City has demonstrated that with enough political will, street crime can be reduced dramatically. After all, the 418 robberies reported in the city last week compare to 1,928 during a typical week in 1990. Confronted with new data on the pervasiveness of workplace violations, the city must now take on another, no less harmful, type of theft.