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Don’t make it more difficult for workers to recover stolen pay

A “Wage Theft is a Crime” print ad campaign from the California Labor Commissioner in 2014.
A “Wage Theft is a Crime” print ad campaign from the California Labor Commissioner in 2014. Vida file

It’s hard to feel optimistic about the future when your boss steals the wages you earned picking vegetables in the blazing sun, doing back-breaking construction work, sweating over a garment factory sewing machine around the clock or pulling 12-hour shifts in a restaurant kitchen that pays no overtime.

Yet the California Chamber of Commerce has ironically proposed to “help” Californians by allowing fewer workers to recover their stolen pay.

 
Opinion

We represent the low-wage workers who are the backbone of the economy, so we know that limiting their ability to recover wages not only harms families but lets unscrupulous companies get away with keeping stolen money rather than investing it in our local economies.

The federal Department of Labor estimates more than 350,000 California workers in low-wage jobs become victims of wage theft every week when their employers shave hours, pay less than the minimum wage, force them to work off the clock, misclassify them as independent contractors, or fail to reimburse them for mandatory expenses. A landmark UCLA study calculated that more than $1 billion in wages is stolen each year in Los Angeles alone. Wage theft also worsens income and racial inequality by taking the biggest toll on women, Latinos, African Americans and immigrants.

Holding employers and multibillion-dollar corporations accountable has been challenging for workers and state officials. Severe backlogs at some labor commissioners’ offices and a difficult recovery process often leave workers feeling the system is rigged against them. Fortunately, California has taken important steps to tip the balance toward justice.

One was the 2003 Private Attorneys General Act, which allows workers to take employers to court and recover the same lost wages and penalties as the state labor commissioner. The law has resulted in millions of dollars put back in workers’ pockets and local communities. Because of its success, other states are looking at the statute as a model.

But California corporations large and small have fought to repeal or gut the act. The chamber’s latest salvo is another call to the Legislature to weaken it. Despite the misleading arguments against the statute, the truth is that the law includes many checks and balances to prevent frivolous lawsuits and focus precious court resources on workers who have been harmed. By the time a case goes to court, employers have many opportunities to correct their wrongdoing. Rarely do they try, betting instead that bringing a lawsuit will be too burdensome for workers. Settlements must be approved by a judge and reported to the state’s labor agency, hardly the unfair process characterized by the chamber.

Going to court is never a worker’s first choice, but it is a crucial way to hold cheating employers accountable. That’s why a coalition of workers’ rights advocates and labor organizations are committed to protecting workers’ access to justice.

Mark Schacht is deputy director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. He can be contacted at email@markschacht.com.

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