In an effort that began on December 1, 2003 in Jersey City, representatives from the Mountainside office of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division have fanned out to businesses in Hudson County towns including North Bergen, Union City, West New York and Guttenberg.
Since the program was launched in December 2003, the Labor Department has reached 404 businesses in Hudson County, speaking to 2,335 employees.
According to officials, representatives will soon begin visiting businesses in Bergen County towns such as Palisades Park, home to the state's largest concentration of Asian Americans, most of whom are Korean.
According to District Director of the Mountainside Hour and Wage Office Joseph Petrecca, "This program is designed to reach employers and workers who don't traditionally think of government as a resource, and to show them how we can help." Added Petrecca, "We want to educate employers about what we do, and to offer them guidance about how to comply with labor law requirements, including child labor, minimum wage and overtime. We also want to let workers know that we are here and ready to assist them as well."
According to Labor Department officials, the businesses that are being visited are those that employ more than five people.
The C.O.A.C.H. initiative, according to Patrecca, was born out of meetings that he and his staff had towards the end of the year. At these meetings, issues are discussed and a plan is hashed out based on those discussions.
Said Patrecca, "We decided that we wanted to reach out to local businesses and employers and help them in their understanding of labor laws."
Understandably, many of the businesses that Patrecca and his colleagues visited were concerned about a visit from employees of the United States Government. Some, according to Patrecca, were nervous and reticent to cooperate. But, he said, once it was explained that they were there to help, the businesses' fears were allayed for the most part.
"We understand their fears," said Patrecca. "There is possible mistrust amongst many of these folks, as they are not used to the idea of the government helping them. Many of them see are from countries where you ran from the government."
Added Patrecca, "They were scared at first, but in the end, most of them were actually pretty grateful."
Though the Department of Labor is approaching these businesses in a friendly and informative manner, the end result is compliance with all labor laws.
Said Wage and Hour Regional Administrator recently, "Compliance assistance for employers and workers is an initiative started by Secretary Elaine L. Chao. This is a new way of doing business, where government goes directly to the people in an effort to better serve and protect. We hope that by having face-to-face visits in the respective communities, we can inform employers and workers about labor laws and requirements."
Department of Labor numbers indicate that of 638 investigations of illegal workplace practices in Northern New Jersey, nearly half (372) were found to be in violation of existing laws. "In 2003," said Patrecca, "We collected over $1 million in back wages for 1747 employees."
According to Mountainside District Director Joseph Patrecca, approximately 30 percent of the business had no idea that the United States Department of Labor even existed. "So we gave them informational packets and our personal business cards." This last action, according to Patrecca, allows the businesses to have a direct link to government, without having to wade through bureaucracy.
Added Patrecca, "It is possible that employees weren't comfortable talking to us in front of their employers, so by having our direct numbers, they can feel confident in their anonymity."
More to visit
Department of Labor records indicate that 49 percent of businesses visited in Hudson County are staffed by Hispanics, 31 percent are run by Asian people and 20 percent were considered "other," mostly Arab-Americans. It was and is important to make these distinctions, said Patrecca, so that his office doesn't waste time visiting businesses that would or have contacted them in the past.
Patrecca added that in the near future, the his office will be reaching out into community groups, trade organizations and chambers of commerce in an effort to reach even more local businesses.
One of the businesses that was visited by the Department of Labor representatives was Rincon Music on Bergenline Avenue in West New York. As part of a chain of 12 stores (11 of them in Manhattan), Rincon Music is the exact type of business that the C.O.A.C.H. program targeted. And according to store manager Jaury Hoyos, that's fine with him.
"We try to do the best we can," said Hoyos. "I think it's a great program, a really good thing. A lot of stores are lowering their wages and making people work too many hours." Added Hoyos, "Since we're a chain, the people that own it know they have to be careful and pay attention to the rules."
And sure enough, Hoyos showed The Reporter what appeared to be all the legal posters and notices required by the Department of Labor hanging on a wall in a stairwell.