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In the fall of 2018, Rodrigo Camarena caught an article in El Diario La Prensa, a Spanish-language newspaper in New York City, detailing the increase of wage theft for immigrant workers. One worker told the paper their employer threatened to call immigration services if they complained about not getting paid.
Camarena is director of Justicia Lab, which develops technology to support immigrants and advocates. “It made me really mad, knowing the problem got so much worse under the Trump administration,” recalls Camarena. He reached out to Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy organization quoted in the article: “I basically asked: how can we help?”
The result is ¡Reclamo!, the first independent and not-for-profit worker advocacy digital legal tool to screen and file wage theft complaints. After a three-year design process and eight-month pilot, the app launched this month as a web and mobile platform to empower New York workers and advocates to know, use and shape employment laws.
Prior to ¡Reclamo!, Justicia Lab focused on developing tech resources to help immigrants navigate immigration law and processes. “Under the Trump administration, basically every form of immigration relief was under threat,” says Camarena. “We were frustrated and started thinking about how we could support immigrants outside of immigration law.”
Cue the article in El Diario La Prensa. Make the Road had seen an uptick in wage theft complaints and spent significant time and resources helping workers navigate employment law.
“We had to do the intake, calculate numbers on a spreadsheet, fill out the forms, write a demand letter,” explains Cristobal Gutierrez, lead attorney for Make the Road’s workplace justice team. The nonprofit’s Long Island office doesn’t include a staff attorney, Gutierrez adds, meaning the office couldn’t process wage theft claims.
In 2019, Justicia Lab and Make the Road kicked off a “co-design sprint,” a strategy Justicia Lab regularly uses to develop new tech resources. “We come together with directly-impacted individuals, people who know this issue well, and we go through a process of jointly designing what a potential solution could look like,” explains Camarena.
(Photo courtesy Justicia Lab)
The first sprint emphasized the many challenges immigrant workers face in recovering wages: language barriers, fear of retaliation, complicated paperwork. This two-week design process included members of Make the Road’s workplace justice team, paralegals, workplace justice attorneys and Justicia Lab staff. The goal was to pull out specific solutions in the face of a massive, structural problem.
U.S. workers lose an estimated $50 billion to wage theft every year; an estimated 2.1 million New Yorkers are cheated out of $3.2 billion in total. Immigrants working low-wage jobs are the most victimized.
“We narrowed down what it might look like to help workers and advocates more easily navigate the wage recovery process in New York State,” says Camarena. “And we identified supporting worker advocates in the wage recovery process as an opportunity for a technology-based intervention.”
Justicia Lab designed a rough prototype and worked directly with Make the Road team members to test it. “We have one-on-one user testing sessions, so as individuals go through the product test we see what’s working and what isn’t, and we do interviews afterward,” Camarena explains.
By the end of 2019, Justicia Lab received a grant from the New York Community Trust to expand their co-design process to other New York City worker advocates. In 2021, the team won funding from the Worker’s Lab Innovation Fund competition to expand the pilot further. Justicia Lab ultimately brought four more New York organizations in the development process: New Immigrant Community Empowerment, TakeRoot Justice, El Centro del Inmigrante and Community Resource Center.
(Screenshot courtesy Justicia Lab)
The result is an integrated mobile and computer app with different digital tools. It’s currently optimized for workers in the construction industry, where wage theft is rampant.
“We prioritized that sector because it’s egregious with wage theft, and it was a good starting point before tackling the complexity of other sectors like food and service or agriculture,” says Camarena. “It doesn’t mean workers outside that industry can’t use the app.”
The first part of the tool handles calculation. By answering a simple set of plain language questions, workers start to figure out how much money they’re owed. The tool captures unpaid wages, minimum wage violations, overtime, illegal deductions, liquidated damages, fines and benefits including sick leave.
¡Reclamo! uses that information to populate a New York State Department of Labor complaint form, a demand letter referencing the state’s labor laws, and a call script to put pressure on employers to fulfill their labor obligations.
Because many workers who are immigrants don’t understand the extent of their rights, the app also includes an education tool providing info on local, state and national labor laws, including information about what constitutes wage theft.
The advocacy portion of the tool allows worker organizers and advocates to address wage theft at scale. Justicia Lab’s hope is that the data collected can help advocates identify larger claims and patterns among New York employers, as well as identify opportunities for worker organizing and systemic reform.
Justicia Lab unofficially launched the app in fall of 2022 for the five organizations to test in real-time. Within six months, the organizations filed over $1 million in wage theft claims with the New York State Department of Labor.
In one case, a worker thought his boss owed him $2,000 and ¡Reclamo! found he was actually owed $9,000. “Not only did the employer not pay the $2,000, but the worker was probably owed more given minimum wage laws, and there were a number of violations that ¡Reclamo! incorporated in its calculation,” says Camarena. New York State law says that employers must pay 100% extra of what you’re owed — meaning that $2,000 of stolen wages becomes $4,000 owed under law.
(Screenshot courtesy Justicia Lab)
It also dramatically decreased the time worker advocates spend on processing wage theft claims. “All that work we used to do — now it’s all done in a sit,” says Gutierrez of Make the Road. “We had nothing. So to be able to file a complaint and for it to look orderly, to have a demand letter on hand, to have those tools of calculation without needing a law degree … it’s a game changer.”
To be sure, challenges in recovering stolen wages remain.
“There are workers who don’t know who their employer is — that will always be a challenge that this app can’t solve,” Gutierrez says. No one expects their wages to be stolen, he adds, and are likely not keeping detailed records of hours and dates worked. “It’s still a challenge to make these questions that are required to file a wage complaint seem very doable.”
As the app becomes available to anyone who needs it in New York State, there’s already demand elsewhere. Justicia Lab plans to adapt ¡Reclamo! for use in other industries, like hospitality, restaurants and retail, as well as other states with high wage theft. “Our hope is to make ¡Reclamo! available nationally,” Camarena says.
Camarena and Gutierrez are particularly excited for the app to serve as an organizing tool.
“Our hope is that we can use this data to inform organizing and inform policy,” Camarena says. “We don’t want to just help workers and worker advocates navigate an unjust process more quickly — we want to tackle the process itself, and tackle wage theft as a systemic issue.”
Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit.
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