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Students at Mamaroneck High School take on wage theft

Students in Mamaroneck shining a spotlight on wage theft
Students in Mamaroneck shining a spotlight on wage theft 03:20

MAMARONECK, N.Y. - You might think burglaries and robberies account for the majority of stolen money. 

But it turns out, wage theft costs Americans more than any other type of theft

Working hard for the money - long hours at tough jobs. But many in the Tri-State Area are not getting paid what they're owed. 

"They're just told that they're not going to get paid. They feel angry, they feel frustrated," said worker advocate Luis Zarate. 

At the Community Resource Center in Mamaroneck, Zarate says wage theft is a big focus. And CBS2 found it is a big issue in New York state. 

CBS News analyzed data from the state Department of Labor through a Freedom of Information public records request. Since 2010, workers filed almost 53,000 wage theft claims, totaling almost $364 million in unpaid wages, tip income and overtime. 

Just 59% of the claimants received payments, totaling $220 million. Only 21% of the cases were paid in full. 

Zarate helped two restaurant workers file for years of unpaid overtime. The Labor Department issued judgments for $65,000 and $90,000. 

"But at the end of the day they only got paid $25,000, $35,000," Zarate said. "Even after a final judgment has been issued for any claimant, there's still negotiation with the victims." 

Many taking less than they are owed in order to resolve frustrating delays. 

Zarate says some employers have learned how to avoid paying up. 

"They hide their assets, create a new entity. They declare bankruptcy, create a new entity, go back to business as usual," Zarate said. 

Many wage theft victims are recent immigrants, with their status weaponized by unscrupulous employers. 

"So employers tell them, 'There's nothing you can do, you have to be worried about Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE?'" Aiello asked. 

"We will report you to ICE if you go against us, we've heard that many times," Zarate said. 

"That people can work so hard just to support their families, support themselves, and they get nothing, it's just really heartbreaking to us," said Ben Kulish. 

Kulish, a student at Mamaroneck High School, is taking part in a program with other students to address social issues. This year, they're focusing on wage theft. 

"We have some people in the school, their parents or maybe even themselves are suffering from this issue. And then we have people sitting next to them that have no idea it's even going on," said student Jack Master. 

Rather than shame those committing wage theft, they created stickers honoring business that pledge to follow ethical pay practices. The stickers read "Ethical business - wages paid in full." 

"We're basically just rewarding following the law, and being a good employer. It's mutually beneficial. Workers get paid, and they get promoted," said student Lea Barry-Thouez. 

"It is beautiful to see young people really getting interested in this issue," Zarate said. 

Zarate says the students have organized a wage theft community forum to build awareness of the problem, and help available for workers to fight wage theft, and collect what they're owed.

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