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Retaliation and the New York Wage Theft Prevention Act

New York’s new Wage Theft Prevention Act, which went into effect in April 2011, is a major step forward in protecting the rights of New York employees.

Under the new law, employees who suffer from unlawful retaliation as a result of wage-related complaints can be awarded front pay or reinstatement, lost compensation, liquidated damages up to ten thousand dollars, and attorney fees and costs.

For the first time, a New York employee who makes a good faith wage-related complaint is protected from retaliation — even if it turns out that there was no basis for the underlying complaint. Also, employees who are perceived to have made wage-related complaints — even if they didn’t really complain — cannot be retaliated against. The law makes clear that a protected complaint need not make specific reference to the Labor Law and it need not be made to any particular person.

Under the prior law it was illegal for employers and their agents to fire, penalize, or otherwise discriminate or retaliate against an employee who made a wage-related complaint. Now, it is also illegal to for anyone to even threaten to carry out any of these acts. Also, all persons – not just employers and their agents – are now banned from engaging in prohibited retaliation.

The new law also significantly increases wage-related notice and reporting requirements, and imposes heightened liquidated damages and criminal penalties on employers who fail to pay wages, underpay wages, or fail to keep records and provide required notices and statements. For example, new criminal penalties provide that any person who violates the anti-retaliation provisions may be found guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.

Unpaid wages and compensation remain a persistent problem for New York employees, especially in the current fragile economic climate. The anti-retaliation provisions of the Wage Theft Prevention Act should allow employees to speak out about these issues without fear of reprisal and incentivize employers to address such issues rather than punish or threaten those who raise them.

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