Global Justice Day turns spotlight on wage violations

Among the panel speakers at The Hofstra University Center for Civic Engagement's Global Justice Day were, from left, Miguel Alas, Workplace Project; Nadia Marin-Molina, National Day Laborer Organizing Network; Saul Asencio, former Nick's Pizza worker; Jessica Greenberg, Central American Refugee Center; Mario Murillo, vice dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication; and, at lectern, Karla Alas-Rivera, CARECEN. // Photo by Fatima Moien/Long Island Advocate

By Fatima Moien

Hofstra University opened its Guthart Cultural Center Theater for a panel discussion March 15 to give Long Island’s immigrant workers a venue to tell their firsthand accounts of the workplace violations that they have faced.

The hour-and-a-half event was one part of the Hofstra Center for Civic Engagement’s multi-pronged Global Justice Day, attended by students, professors and members of the public. Organized by Mario Murillo, vice dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, the panel included:

  • Saul Asencio, restaurant worker.
  • Miguel Alas, lead organizer of the Workplace Project (Centro de Trabajadores).
  • Nadia Marin Molina, co-executive director, National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

Karla Alas Rivera, Long Island immigrant community navigator for the Hempstead-based Central American Refugee Center, moderated.

The Long Island Advocate, the Lawrence Herbert School’s online platform for community-based reporting, began investigating “wage-theft” allegations on Long Island and in New York City last July, starting with Nick’s Pizza in Rockville Centre, which was ordered by the State Department of Labor to pay more than $421,000 in back wages, liquidated damages and interest charges to eight employees who were employed at the upscale eatery from the mid-1990s through the 2010s. Additionally Nick’s, owned by Nicholas J. Angelis, of Rockville Centre, was ordered to pay more than $311,500 in state penalties. Angelis had no comment when reached last fall.

Wage theft, when workers are paid less than federal and state minimums for work, is common, costing low-wage workers, who are often undocumented, billions of dollars annually. All eight workers were undocumented at the time they were employed by Nick’s.

Molina served as a translator for Asencio, who along with his fellow seven former Nick’s Pizza workers first filed a complaint with the DOL in 2009, nearly 14 years ago. Asencio said they had considered private litigation after the DOL had won two court judgments in the workers’ favor in 2021 and 2022 but remained unpaid. They decided against hiring a private attorney, however, after speaking with one. “The lawyer told us I can take this case, but I’m going to end up taking your money because you’ve already won this case,” Asencio said in Spanish. “You have the order. All you really have to do is pressure, and that’s what we’re doing now.”

In addition to speaking out in The Advocate, the workers held a protest in front of Nick’s on Feb. 8, attended by a dozen demonstrators.

“The lawyer told us I can take this case, but I’m going to end up taking your money because you’ve already won this case.”

Saul Asencio, Former Nick’s Pizza Worker

Panelists were also members of the #FundExcludedWorkers coalition, which has called on New York State to offer unemployment insurance for undocumented immigrants, freelance and cash workers, and the recently incarcerated. Coalition members traveled in February to the State Capitol to lobby state senators and Assembly members, as well as held a news conference in January in Patchogue.

Martin Melkonian, an adjunct economics professor and member of the Center for Civic Engagement’s advisory board, helped host Wednesday’s panel. “I think it’s important for students to go outside their classrooms and hear the ideas presented by knowledgeable people, in this case, people speaking on wage theft on Long Island,” Melkonian said.

Panelists and former Nick’s Pizza workers after the event. // Photo by Fatima Moien/Long Island Advocate

Before the question-and-answer portion of the event, panelists offered solutions to help amplify their efforts, encouraging students to build partnerships and support the cause through community building and networking with the non-profit representatives at the event.

Amber Bianchi, a Hofstra first-year student, said she felt inspired after the event and hopes to focus on a journalistic piece for her Globalization of Human Trafficking course with Dr. Linda Longmire to spread awareness about wage theft.

“I was very surprised by the government response. I felt like they would be doing more, but they’re not,” Bianchi said.

Scott Brinton contributed to this story.