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California’s labor laws, which rank highly compared to other states when considering policies surrounding wage violations and worker protections, should discourage employers from committing violations. A recent report by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Harvard University earlier this year surveyed 980 California workers at dozens of the state’s largest retail, food and other service sector companies. The figures pointed towards significant underreporting of labor violations that tend to impact vulnerable low-income populations the most, which is counterintuitive and unacceptable. 

One key finding revealed that 41% of the workers surveyed had experienced at least one serious violation of federal labor law in the last year, including being required to work off the clock, not being paid overtime or being paid less than minimum wage. The conversation about wage theft, in particular, is worth exploring since various workers filing these claims against their employers often do not get their cases addressed in a timely manner, nor do they receive compensation payments for extended periods of time. 

Working-class individuals like Manuel Chavez, who won a wage theft violation against a hotel company for thousands of dollars, still have not been paid. Their experience contributes towards the broader trend where a mere one in seven employers paid their wage theft violations in a five-year period. It’s easy to shame employers who put up such a fight in the courts to ensure that workers eventually drop their cases. However, the scrutiny in properly addressing the issue should also be directed towards the California Labor Commissioner’s office, which historically has struggled to address wage claims in a timely manner.   

Filing backlog issues are outrageous when considering that these wage theft claims should be heard in 120 days and decided 15 days after that. Yet the reality is that between 2017 and 2021, the state agency, on average, took around 505 days. These delays are mainly due to understaffing, especially field agents, who are paid below-market salaries. The Labor Commissioner’s office is responsible for representing workers’ interests, and they will not be able to do this when they cannot even pay their own employees well. However, if strict laws are not combined with strict fiscal penalties that hold even small employers accountable, the issue will continue to persist. 

The direct impact can be seen in the thousands of workers in the Southern California area in warehouse or restaurant industries, which mainly contain low-income wage workers. Nonprofits like the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center (PEOC) work with day laborers who have several wage violations piled up to create substantial cases against an employer that get directed to the Bureau of Field Enforcement, the enforcement arm of the Labor Commissioner’s office. 

Even though California law prohibits employers from discriminating, threatening or retaliating against employees based on immigration status, the reality is that these vulnerable populations substantially face more labor violations because of a lack of awareness about these protections and employers’ discrimination against workers. The critical work that the PEOC does to educate workers about their rights in the workplace and how to navigate potential employer retaliation serves as a model to combat the underreporting of workplace violations.

Other areas like the District of Columbia (D.C.) which have similar labor laws to California, have successfully sanctioned employers from committing these violations because of their proactive investigations of employers who have likely committed wage theft. For example, special units in D.C. investigate construction sites where workers are mislabeled as independent contractors and, therefore, aren’t eligible for some worker protections under the law, including overtime pay. These government agencies successfully locate red flags among likely perpetrators of labor laws. They gather enough evidence to utilize the D.C. Wage Theft Prevention Amendment Act of 2014, which mandates a 90-day notice requirement, or the employer risks a 500-dollar fine.

It is paramount to think outside the box for solutions to address vulnerable workers, such as assisting the PEOC or creating mutual aid funds for workers in the filing process. One place to begin would be to pressure politicians to increase the budget for the California Labor Commissioner’s office to assist with the backlog. Persistent labor law violations reveal a wrinkle in the failing state government bureaucracy and require steadfast action to protect workers. Implementing successful task force units, as seen in the D.C. government, requires funding for which the state budget should start accounting. Strong labor laws are useful only if they can be properly enforced without the negative impacts coming at the expense of those who need the support the most.