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Minimum Enforcement

Two weeks ago, Attorney General Elliot Spitzer announced settlements with five employment agencies that referred workers routinely to jobs that paid less than the state’s minimum wage. The workers involved were primarily immigrants from Latin America seeking employment assistance from agencies within Manhattan and Queens. The settlements were a result of an ongoing investigation, led by the attorney general’s Labor Bureau.

New York state law prohibits employment agencies from referring people to jobs that pay below $5.15 per hour or jobs that do not pay overtime for working more than 40 hours per week. The agencies in question were also charging inflated “advance fees,” or employment agency deposits, a practice that violates New York state law. The investigation found that the agencies charged referred more than half of their workers, in one case 87 percent, to jobs paying below minimum wage. Most of the agencies also violated the state’s human rights law by asking about origin, age, sex, and/or marital status.

Three agencies included in the settlement—JR, Rojas, and Alma—are allowed to continue to do business pending their compliance with the attorney general’s office. They also agreed to pay penalties ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 and inform employers that they will no longer be referring applicants to illegal jobs. Agencies Doumi and HD both agreed to cease operations and pay a fine. All agencies will return any money illegally charged to the applicants in question.

Individual lawsuits have been filed against four additional agencies. The applicants pressing charges are seeking civil penalties ranging from $54,000 to $310,000. Maritere Arce, a representative from Spitzer’s New York City office, stresses that this is not an isolated incident. “It’s a widespread industry practice. We’ve noticed a pattern and are leading an ongoing investigation throughout the state,” she said. Arce also stressed that investigations depend on complaints made to the attorney general’s Labor Bureau, which can be reached at (212) 416-8700 or (800) 771-7755.

—Amelia Koethen

Welcome to Pleasantville

According to a recent national study, the Albany-Troy-Schenectady area is one of the most secure places to live in the United States. The study, which was conducted by the Farmers Insurance Group, considered the risks of natural disaster, job loss, and crime statistics in more than 200 metropolitan areas. The Capital Region ranked fifth in the survey, thanks to its low risk of natural disasters, and the presence of state government, which supplies job security to area residents.

While some Albany residents who worry about crime in the city said they were confused as to why this area would rank so high, others agree with the positive rankings. Debi Martino, a lifetime Albany resident, says that she’s never had problems with crime. “I feel safe living and working [in this city],” she said.

The Albany-Troy-Schenectady area was also ranked last fall as the least stressful metropolitan area in the country for many of the same reasons that it ranked so high in the contest for most secure place. The survey was conducted by the database experts at www.best places.net, who describe the attractiveness of the Capital Region in terms of its comparatively low suicide rates, low commute time and, again, the abundance of state jobs to keep the unemployment rate low.

Statistics were gathered from various agencies, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Climatic Data Center, and the FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

Cities were ranked on a scale of 1 to 100, while categories considered more important, like crime rates and job security, weighed in more heavily than others.

Nearby Dutchess County ranked second as the most secure place to live with its low crime and low unemployment.

—Katharine Jones

It’s Worse Than You Think

Internal FBI documents recently obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center through the Freedom of Information Act have revealed that the government’s law-enforcement powers under a provision of the USA Patriot Act are broader than previously known. The FBI papers show that the bureau may use Section 215 of the controversial act to, among other things, investigate a U.S. citizen partly on the basis of First Amendment activities without any suspicion of a crime, and obtain the business records of an innocent person having a relationship to a terrorist suspect. Further details of the ACLU/EPIC findings can be read on the EPIC Web site at www.epic.org/ alert/EPIC_Alert_11.12.html, and the documents themselves may be downloaded in PDF format from the ACLU’s Web site at www.aclu.org/patriotfoia.

—Glenn Weiser

Renewing Interest in Renewables

Citizens, businessmen and advo-cacy groups offered up their opinions on the state’s renewable energy practices last week, concluding a series of public forums arranged by the New York State Department of Public Services.

The eight forums, which were held throughout the state, were provided by the NYSDPS in order to gather input on a state plan that would increase New York’s use of renewable energy. The Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, an initiative recently issued by the NYSDPS, calls for renewable resources to provide 25 percent of the state’s electricity by 2013 instead of the current 19 percent.

While public opinion generally favored both the plan and the public forum, several questions were raised regarding which resources qualified under the plan’s guidelines. Currently, NYSDPS considers wind, solar, tidal, fuel cells and select hydroelectric, biomass and biogas resources as acceptable forms of renewable energy. Several individuals addressed the use of municipal waste as a renewable resource. While the burning of solid waste is not an eligible resource, the initiative left the option open for future consideration.

Jason K. Babbie of the New York Public Interest Research Group argued that the burning of municipal waste for electricity would “trash” an otherwise beneficial plan.

Several businesses questioned the cost efficiency of increasing the use of renewable energy.

The NYSDPS identified three plans for achieving the agency’s energy goals with differing mixes of renewables. Each plan focuses upon either consumer cost, environmental concerns or a general balance between the two. While the criteria and aggressiveness of the methods differ, each has a target date of 2013 for the state to reach the 25-percent goal.

—Rick Marshall

Karner Blues

On June 10, a lawsuit was filed by the grassroots wildlife preservation group Save the Pine Bush against the town of Clifton Park Planning Board. In the lawsuit, Save the Pine Bush alleges Clifton Park did not fully consider the presence of a Karner Blue butterfly habitat when it passed a soil disturbance permit for land along Wood Road in April, and therefore did not follow the guidelines of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). According to SEQRA, an environmental impact statement must be completed when an action is proposed to the town’s planning commission. The town then uses the EIS in making its decision. In the case of the lawsuit, no EIS was completed and the town did not demand one.

The piece of land in question has a butterfly habitat that has been documented since the 1970s. However, the owners of the land, DCG Development Company, stopped allowing New York state Department of Environmental Conservation scientists on the property in 1997. Though it is unclear what the company’s long-term plans are with the property, they allegedly wish to flatten the land. Save the Pine Bush claims the habitat is being destroyed.

“It seems tragic that habitats of endangered species would not be considered a priority for the town,” said ecological planning advocate and Clifton Park resident William Engelman. The butterfly, often associated with the Albany Pine Bush, is a state and federally endangered species. Entire populations of the butterfly have become extinct in states such as New Hampshire and Ohio, mainly due to habitat fragmentation and destruction. In the early 1990s, the Clifton Park Town Planning Board issued findings based on a generic environmental impact statement that declared there were to be no disturbances to Karner Blue habitats in the town.

“I’m confident that the appropriate policies and procedures were followed when reviewing the application,” said Jason Kemper, Clifton Park director of planning, in response to lawsuit. “To my knowledge, Save the Pine Bush has not commented on a project being reviewed by the town of Clifton Park [in the four years] I’ve been here.”

—Ashley Thiry


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