09/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Protecting Workers' Rights

Yu Guan Ke worked more than 10 years as a delivery man on for an Upper West Side restaurant, where he was paid $120 a week for 75 hour weeks. Despite repeated protests, the restaurant owners refused to pay the minimum wage to Mr. Ke and dozens of workers - almost all of them immigrants - until a civil lawsuit forced them to do so.

In investigating the Yu Guan Ke case, a federal court found that multiple restaurants through Manhattan had failed to pay the minimum wage to their employees and engaged in a campaign to intimidate them and prevent them from filing a lawsuit.

We need to do more to protect hardworking New Yorkers like Mr. Ke. New York State has strong and progressive wage protection laws on the books, but too many workers go unprotected because those laws aren't enforced aggressively enough.

To add insult to injury, some employers who shortchange their employees on wages also fail to make contributions to the Unemployment Insurance Fund and the Workers' Compensation program. All of this hurts not only the worker, who suffers lost wages and benefits, but also the many scrupulous employers who comply with the law, and then suffer an unfair competitive disadvantage.

State minimum wage, prevailing wage, unemployment insurance and workers compensation laws are all designed to protect the rights of hard working New Yorkers and to protect those employers who do the right thing.

As the next Manhattan District Attorney, I will use the force of the criminal law to protect workers' rights. I will designate a senior member of my team to lead an effort across bureaus to develop wage theft and related cases. Working with the Attorney General, Department of Labor, and the advocacy community, we will identify and prosecute "impact" wage law violation cases criminally, not only to punish or deter bad actors, but also to encourage the good ones to keep doing the right thing.

Enforcement of wage protection laws is the responsibility of multiple federal, state and local regulatory and law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, while the federal government has the most resources, it has until recently essentially abdicated its responsibility. A July 2008 Government Accountability Office report found that federal enforcement of minimum wage and overtime violations was down by 37% over the last decade.

Civil penalties and sanctions in this arena often have a limited effect and are often treated as little more than the cost of doing business. Absent a meaningful threat of criminal prosecution, unscrupulous employers are not deterred. When I am District Attorney, businesses that steal from their workers will to be held accountable to the full extent of the criminal law.