Rabbis to the Rescue

The New York Department of Labor is so backlogged it has spawned a team of vigilantes in yarmulkes.

One Rabbi in the Bronx, Ari Hart, told me he got involved because he saw how poorly workers were treated in a Kosher food processing plant in Iowa. An Immigration raid descended on the plant and some 300 workers were arrested, some were charged with fraud and eventually deported.

The raid also exposed abysmal working conditions for the the employees of the plant. There were children working on the factory floor, long hours, and wage theft.

What was so egregious to Rabbi Hart was the cruel juxtaposition of Kosher food and worker abuse. How could his matza balls be held to a higher standard than the person making them?

So Rabbi Hart started his own organization to fight worker abuse called the Tav Ha’Yosher. The Tav gives out a seal of approval to companies that are treating their workers with dignity and respect, and paying them — at the very least — the minimum wage.

You’d think there wouldn’t be a place in the market for an organization that rubber stamps companies that are simply following the law. But wage theft is such a common problem that even the Department of Labor recognizes there’s a need for it.

Rabbi Hart said he approached the DOL with his idea and they told him that they didn’t have the man power to walk the streets like regular cops to enforce the law. They welcomed these volunteer beat cops!

The Department of Labor employs 112 investigators to respond to the 6,000 to 7,000 new wage theft complaints every year. The DOL is a complaint-based system. It’s not proactively looking for the bad apples, it doesn’t have time for that! It’s simply responds to, and investigates, the claims it receives — and poorly at that.

The NY Department of Labor recently changed the scope of its investigations. Legally there is a six-year statute of limitations on wage theft claims but, since the DOL doesn’t have the man-power, they reduced the number of years eligible for investigation by half to three years.

The law protects workers and allows them six years to file a claim, but since the DOL is so backed up it has reduced the potential backpay by half.

Why are they giving employers a break?

The DOL is doing such a bad job that Ari Hart has trained a team of Rabbis to travel around the city to do regular inspections on employers.

If Rabbi Hart’s vigilantes find poor working conditions or wage theft they work with the employer to get them up to the legal standards.

Apparently we have reverted to the wild, wild west, with non-functioning government and vigilante justice.

Listen to my piece about the vigilante Rabbis on NPR’s Latino USA:

Sarah BarrettComment