Inform, Educate, Act:
MHS OCRA Students Aim to Combat Wage Theft
By Rina Beder
On January 9th, Lea Barry-Thouez, Jack Master and Benjamin Kulish, three Mamaroneck High School seniors in the Original Civic Research and Action (OCRA) program spoke with the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit about their continuing efforts to combat wage theft through increasing awareness and educating employers and workers. This was the third program sponsored by The Local Summit highlighting the work of MHS OCRA program students. Prior programs featuring OCRA students were “Right to Counsel in Eviction Proceedings”, and “Increasing Voter Participation in Local Elections.”
OCRA was founded over five years ago by MHS social studies teacher Joe Liberti and is a four-year program that begins in freshman year. The program aims to instill “greater civic capacity and creative confidence,” said Liberti. Creative confidence allows students to come up with ideas to address an issue or problem that might not have just one clear answer. “It is an important life skill that students can take with them and build upon as they embark on the next chapter in their lives,” highlighted Liberti.
After conducting extensive research and meeting with the Community Resource Center (CRC) and numerous lawyers, including those with the Westchester County DA, the students focused on the issue of wage theft. Wage theft is the denial of wages including minimum wage and overtime pay and disproportionately affects undocumented workers.
Worker protection laws in NYS cover all workers, regardless of immigration status and violation of these laws result in substantial penalties for employers. Despite these protections, undocumented workers are reluctant to report wage theft due to fear of legal action or concern that they will never find work again, explained Ben Kulish. There are “over 2.1 million victims of wage theft in NYS alone,” stated Jack Master and “given the reluctance of undocumented workers to report wage theft or those wishing to remain anonymous, it is an underreported crime.” Ben went on to say that “while it is illegal to hire a worker with the knowledge that they are undocumented, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, once the work has been done, the employee must receive minimum wage regardless of documentation status.”
During their research, the students identified lack of awareness of current rights and law as the biggest barrier to ensuring workers are protected. The “most effective way to have an impact is through educating the community and that comes through outreach,” said Lea Barry-Thouez.
In the spring of 2021, the students with the help of LMC-Media and the CRC, created a public service announcement to increase awareness of the law and resources in the County, including a multilingual hotline launched in 2021 by the Westchester County DA office. These efforts garnered local media attention and the PSA was also shared with the school District’s 13,000-member email list. The students also created the Ethical Business Initiative designed to “shine a positive light on local businesses on Mamaroneck Avenue complying with NYS Labor Laws.” Working with the CRC, students identified and visited responsible businesses who then received an “Ethical Business” sticker to display in their windows.
The students, in collaboration with the CRC, are organizing a Worker Forum on February 4 at 3:00 pm at the Mamaroneck Public Library to capitalize and build on the attention the project has earned. The forum is also being conducted in collaboration with the Westchester County DA, Westchester Human Rights Commission and a former US Department of Labor investigator. The program is for anyone who has been a victim of or susceptible to wage theft or wants to learn more about workers’ rights, “to make sure that you’re never in a position where you could be taken advantage of,” said Lea. In addition, Lea indicated “students will be distributing notebooks to workers to write down their hours, information they learned in the forum and to use in whatever working plans they have in the future. “
“Many workers, most especially undocumented workers, either do not know about or do not know how to access the many existing resources in the County and the State. And this lack of knowledge and awareness is why we thought we could come in and make a difference,” said Jack.
For resources and to learn more, reach out to the Worker’s Center at the Community Resource Center. To report wage theft, call the Westchester District Attorney’s Office Labor Crimes Hotline at 914-994-8477.
The Larchmont Mamaroneck Local Summit is an informal community council that seeks to make a better life for the community by keeping it informed of major issues of concern. The next Zoom program, co-hosted with LMC Media, will be on Tuesday, February 7 at 8:00 am and will address “The Impact of Immigration/Refugees on Our Community.”
Visit the Local Summit online: https://www.localsummitlm.org/ . LMCMedia: https://lmcmedia.org/ .