ELIZABETH – New Jersey is toughening its law against wage theft, in which people typically in low-pay jobs don’t receive the wages or benefits to which they’re entitled, such as failing to pay overtime or minimum wage.

The bill was signed into law at a raucous event at Make the Road New Jersey, a nod to the reality that undocumented immigrants are often the victims of wage theft because they’re reluctant to look to government agencies for help.

“We want to send a message to employers, the bad employers, that in New Jersey we are not going to tolerate the exploitation of any worker,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who signed the bill in the absence of Gov. Phil Murphy, who returns Wednesday from a two-week vacation.

“We have many immigrant communities in this state. Do not think that if you employ members of immigrant communities that you can violate the law and not pay them what they are entitled to,” said Oliver.

Under the new law, most of which takes effect immediately, an employer found to have violated the wage-theft law for the first time can be fined $500 to $1,000 and jailed for 10 to 90 days. Repeat violations can be punished by $1,000 to $2,000 fines and 10 to 100 days in jail.

An employee can also sue, and an employer could have to pay the wages owed plus damages as much as double the wages owed. The additional damages wouldn’t have to be paid for a first violation if the employer didn’t realize it had happened and pays up within 30 days.

Employers who retaliate against a worker who brings a claim for underpaid wages can similarly be liable for triple the amount of wages owed.

If wages of $5,000 or more are found to have been withheld from a worker, the state Labor department will audit the company. If the violations continue, or an order to pay damages is ignored, business licenses can be suspended or revoked.

An employer who improperly doesn’t pay promised wages can be convicted of a new third-degree crime, pattern of wage non-payment, that can be penalized by fines of up to $15,000 and three to five years in prison.

New Jersey Business & Industry Association vice president of government affairs Michael Wallace said businesses who knowingly and willfully cheat employees should be strongly penalized but that the new law criminalizes inadvertent violations of complex laws.

“As a result of this law, employers acting in good faith will now be threatened with excessive civil and criminal penalties for unintended mistakes. In certain scenarios, these unsuspecting employers will be forced to choose between protecting their business and defending their rights in court,” Wallace said.

"Employers are now at risk of massive penalties and possibly years of jail time if they lose in court on reasonably disputable points,” he said. “Also, as a result of this law, they now assume the risk of treble-damage class actions for unknown violations of a vendor or contractor they hire."

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union, said New Jersey now has “the strongest anti-wage theft law in the country.

“My bill allows for honest mistakes by the employer. But it protects also workers from retaliation and imposes severe penalties on employers who make wage theft a part of doing business,” Quijano said.

“We are sending a message today that New Jersey will not tolerate wage theft in our state and will stand up for working families,” she said. “Today is a good day for workers in New Jersey because today, together, we have won a battle in the fight for economic justice.”

Quijano said “wage theft is a routine business practice” and that in 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor recovered $304 million for workers nationally. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg noted that wage theft has been called an epidemic.

“Well let me tell you, as of today, wage theft was epidemic in New Jersey – but no longer,” said Weinberg, D-Bergen.

The bill was narrowly passed in June, by votes of 22-12 in the Senate and 41-26 with seven abstentions in the Assembly.

An earlier version of the bill was conditionally vetoed by then-Gov. Chris Christie in the final days of his term in 2018.

The bill has been percolating since 2012, when it was first passed in the Assembly. Its chief sponsor at the time was then-Speaker Sheila Oliver, who got to sign the bill into law.

“We are sending a strong message to employers who choose to steal wages,” Oliver said. “They will no longer be able to get away with these unfair and unethical practices in this state, and if they choose to conduct themselves in this manner, you know what? They’re no longer welcome to do business in the state of New Jersey.”

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