NEW YORK — There are thousands of fashion victims in Manhattan, but these are not the victims of style that one typically imagines. They are the victims of the fashion industry: they are the low-wage workers who stock, sell, ring-up and protect fashionable clothing items which line the streets of Manhattan’s retail districts. Now, the workers are fighting back against stolen wages, unpaid overtime and hazardous conditions.
In a battle that has lasted for more than three years, the current and former employees of Shoe Mania and Mystique Boutique are not just fighting for legal restitution, but for workers’ rights and economic justice for retail workers throughout New York City
On Feb. 3, 2010, community groups, labor leaders and elected officials representing over a dozen groups joined these retail workers in the “March of Hearts” in SoHo against stolen wages and unpaid overtime. The two-hour march down Broadway was organized by the Retail Action Project (RAP), a community-labor partnership of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU/UFCW) and Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES). RAP is calling on Shoe Mania and Mystique to pay its workers millions of dollars in back wages.
“Here on Broadway, the wealth of the world lines the windows, while the people who make that wealth are starved and stolen from,” said Damaris Reyes, Executive Director of GOLES.
“We want retailers to know that those who violate wage and hour laws are not welcome in our community,” she added.
Many retailers routinely break the law by denying their employees minimum wage and overtime pay. At Shoe Mania, employees are suing the company for more than $3 million in unpaid wages, while former workers from Mystique Boutique and its sister stores Amsterdam, Madness and Exstaza, are demanding the company pay them approximately $2 million in back wages.
At Mystique, a SoHo-based clothing retail chain with seven Manhattan locations currently employing approximately 90 sales, stock, cashier, and security workers, current and former employees claim they have been subject to many labor violations.
“I would sometimes work for more than 60 hours per week — and [with] no overtime [pay],” said former Mystique Boutique employee Carolina Ferreyra.
“I started getting an attitude about it, [and] that’s when I got fired,” she added.
Security and stock workers report putting in 66-hour work weeks, while working for as little as $5.15 per hour, $2.10 below the legal minimum wage. In other cases, particularly amongst sales staff, workers say that they received the regular hourly pay for hours worked in excess of 40 hours, instead of the legally-required overtime pay of time-and-a-half. Workers also report that the owners of Mystique terminated more than 30 workers who were suspected of having been involved in the organizing effort with RAP.
At Shoe Mania, a New York City-based shoe retail chain with four Manhattan locations currently employing approximately 100 non-clerical sales, stock, cashier and security workers, many workers have been subject to illegally low pay and unpaid overtime as well. Nearly 150 current and former Shoe Mania employees have filed a collective action lawsuit against the company seeking approximately $3 million in damages.
“For over three years, I worked at Shoe Mania [for] 11 hours a day, six days a week. That’s over 65 hours every week! But I was never paid overtime. Whenever I got my paycheck, it would only show that I worked 40 hours per week,” said Ahmed Dalhatu, former stock worker at the recently-closed 11 West 34th Street Shoe Mania store. Shoe Mania workers also report being forced to work long hours in dirty and dimly-lit basements without sufficient break time. Additionally, workers say they do not receive pay raises.
“The only time my pay went up was when the minimum wage increased. For the nearly three years I worked at Shoe Mania, I never once got a single raise,” said John Montaño, former sales worker at the 853 Broadway Shoe Mania store.
Shoe Mania and Mystique employees are not alone in experiencing the brunt of these violations. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP)’s recent report, “Working Without Laws: A Survey of Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City,” 21 percent of low-wage workers in New York City are paid less than the minimum wage. More than one-third of workers report that they are forced to work overtime, and in 77 percent of these cases they are not paid the legally required overtime rate by their employer. Additionally, 29 percent of the workers surveyed are subject to “off-the-clock violations,” whereby companies will ask workers to show up early or stay late, without being paid for that part of their working time. In real numbers, NELP estimates that in any given week, more than 300,000 low-wage workers in New York City are victim of at least one pay-based violation and, as a result, workers lose more than $18.4 million per week in earned wages.
Wage and hour violations rest at the heart of the problem that retail workers must face on a daily basis, and in New York City, more low-wage workers are employed in retail than in any other single sector of the economy. Within the retail sector, 44 percent of workers earn less than $10 an hour.
With growing support from labor unions, community groups, elected officials and hundreds of retail workers throughout New York City, RAP members and supporters are demanding that employers be held accountable when they violate wage and hour labor laws, and are fighting for a living wage for New York City’s retail workers.
A living wage in New York state is defined as $10 per hour with benefits, or $11.50 per hour without benefits. This is the approximate amount that New Yorkers who work an ordinary 40-hour work week need to earn in order to pay for basic necessities such as shelter, food and health care.
“If Shoe Mania were required to pay us a living wage, we would have enough to provide for ourselves and our families,” said former Shoe Mania worker John Montaño.
Damaris Reyes says that the struggle for workers’ rights and economic justice has a rich history that comes out of the strength that lies in solidarity.
“We will fight [and] stand by the workers until we win,” said Reyes. “Solidarity is in our blood and on these blocks,” she added.