Twin Brothers Face Prosecution as Manhattan Cracks Down on Wage Theft

A week after the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced a new unit to prosecute wage theft, it is accusing a pair of twins of stealing construction workers’ money — and charging one with assaulting and threatening two day laborers.

Prosecutors on Friday charged Lulzim “Luis” Shabaj, 41, in New York State Supreme Court with scheme to defraud, saying that he and his twin brother Gzim “Jimmy” Shabaj had stolen thousands of dollars from the Spanish-speaking workers by declining to pay them for their work at a site in Harlem.

Prosecutors said that Gzim Shabaj, who was charged earlier this week, had responded to one worker’s early September request to be paid by pulling out a knife and, with his other hand, repeatedly punching the worker in the head until his ear bled.

About three weeks later, a second day laborer asked for his money. This time, prosecutors said, Gzim Shabaj ripped a side mirror off the worker’s van and repeatedly hit the vehicle with the detached mirror, denting a hubcap and cracking the windshield. He also hit the laborer in the shoulder, and threatened to call immigration enforcement on him, cursing at him and telling him: “Hispanics, get out of the country.”

The laborer called 911, and Gzim Shabaj fled. When the police officers arrived, Lulzim Shabaj intentionally gave them the wrong name and birthday for his twin, prosecutors said. He then canceled one of the worker’s paychecks.

The twins and their construction contracting company, 3 Brothers, which was charged as a third defendant, were accused of stealing more than $7,500 in total from the two workers. (A third brother who works with them was not involved and was not accused.)

A spokesman for ​the Legal Aid Society, which is representing Gzim Shabaj, said “Mr. Shabaj has pleaded not guilty and is presumed innocent. At this time, we are reviewing initial discovery from the district attorney’s office and urge the public to reserve judgment while we conduct our investigation into the complicated case.”

“As with a​​ny individ​ual charged with a crime, my client is innocent until proven guilty by a jury,” said a lawyer for Lulzim Shabaj, Patricia A. Wright.

The judge, Diane Kiesel, ordered Lulzim Shabaj to be fitted with an electronic ankle monitor and issued orders of protection for the two day laborers.

The case was the first brought since the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced its new unit during a news conference at the headquarters of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union. District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg and other officials emphasized that wage theft is no less a crime than other forms of larceny.

“If someone dips into my pocket and steals my wallet, they could go to jail,” said Manny Pastreich, the president of the local, starting a refrain that was echoed by many others during the event. “But if an unscrupulous employer steals thousands or even millions from workers’ paychecks, too often they just get a slap on the wrist or worse, plain old get away with it.”

Over the past several years, prosecutors across the country have become increasingly involved in wage theft cases, which affect millions of workers. Between 2017 and 2020, losses amounted to billions of dollars of stolen wages, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

It is unusual for wage theft to be accompanied by physical violence — frequently such cases involve more complicated maneuvering by employers to keep workers from being paid in full. But the accusations against the Shabaj twins neatly illustrate the point that the district attorney is seeking to press with the new unit.

“Wage theft is very clearly a public safety issue,” Mr. Bragg said in a statement on Friday. “These workers demanded their fair pay, and in return, we allege, they were targeted with physical violence and threats of deportation. We will not stand idly by while hardworking New Yorkers’ lives and livelihoods are jeopardized.”

The office’s Worker Protection Unit, led by Rachana Pathak, aims to aid unpaid workers in several industries, including retail and service as well as construction. The new unit will also incorporate the office’s Construction Fraud Task Force, which aggressively prosecuted wage theft and scrutinized worker deaths. Ms. Pathak is handling the prosecution of the twins, and is also continuing as the supervising attorney of the Construction Fraud Task Force.

Mr. Bragg also announced that his office would invest $100,000 in a Stolen Wage Fund to help provide restitution for victims, and said that the office may eventually invest $500,000 if the operation of the fund goes well. Finally, Mr. Bragg announced his support for a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and State Senator Neil Breslin, which would allow prosecutors to charge those accused of wage theft with more serious felonies, depending on the amount stolen and the number of workers charged.

Jefferson Siegel contributed reporting.

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