Members uncover $2.5 million wage-theft swindle
Labor Department investigators are dwindling due to salary unfairness
By DEBORAH A. MILES
PEF-represented labor investigators played a significant role in ensuring more than 400 workers got the money they earned from crooked contractors such as Sky Materials Corporation. That contractor not only hid $3 million in payroll to save more than $1 million in workers compensation premiums between 2013 and 2015, but its foreman Wilmer Cueva was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Carlos Moncayo, a worker who was buried alive, crushed by thousands of pounds of dirt, at a job site in the meatpacking district of Lower Manhattan.
One might think the state would offer support for the labor investigators and directors at the state Department of Labor (DOL) considering how much money they collect and the vast number of cases they close, but that’s not happening. In part, the erosion of the Civil Service system is the culprit and those decisions have affected the labor investigators in a negative way.
Jose Medina, a PEF steward at the Labor Department and a senior investigator, said only one investigator remains at the Labor Services Investigation (LSI) Division who worked on uncovering the construction workers wage theft. All the other investigators on that case took other jobs.
He said short-staffing at the division has increased during the last seven years, but has worsened with a Civil Service decision to lower the investigator trainees to a salary grade 13, from the former grade 14.
“The lowering of the hiring grade has meant that many good applicants who had taken the exam are now declining job offers from the division. With the complexity of the job and the demand on the LSI’s, the burnout rate has increased.
“The LSI job requires high levels of training and constant upgrade of skills. Investigators work in groups and individually. The position requires people with a lot of knowledge, initiative, motivation and self-drive to keep up with the constant changes in labor laws,” Medina said.
In 2016, Medina compiled an analysis that described the specific duties, responsibilities and pay for the LSIs, with a goal to reclassify the SG 16 investigators to SG 18. He said the analysis was supported by DOL, yet a subsequent Civil Service announcement was released that states all new trainee investigators would be grade 13.
“It takes 18 months to train an investigator, and after three years they advance to a grade 16. Yet they are performing grade 18 duties. Most leave to go to another department with the same position and salary, but with less work and responsibility. Then the cycle repeats itself.
“Now is the time to call upon PEF for guidance and union empowerment at local and statewide labor-management meetings,” Medina said.
PEF President Wayne Spence said the union has established a committee to fight privatization, as it goes hand-in-hand with Civil Service erosion.
“We continue to see how the state violates the civil service merit and fitness rules. We strongly object to any unfairness our members receive, especially when they have more than proven to be a tremendous asset to the state, as in the case of our Labor Department investigators,” Spence said.
“PEF is in the process of evaluating the legal steps available to us, to protect our members from the privatization efforts and unfair salary grades we are seeing here, so they can continue to be the much-needed watchdogs in our state.