Politics & Government

Dan Walters: Wage theft a real problem, but solving it isn’t easy

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The Capitol is accustomed – even inured – to political battles between unions and employers over laws governing labor-management relations.

Assembly Bill 2416 is, in that sense, just another in a decades-long series of such skirmishes.

But it also presents a genuine moral dilemma:

How can government help California’s lowest income workers be paid what they are owed without subjecting reputable businesspeople to ruinous legal harassment?

The issue is called “wage theft” and it appears, from research in Los Angeles and other cities, to be quite common.

A study by UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that “low-wage workers in Los Angeles regularly experience violations of basic laws that mandate a minimum wage and overtime pay and are frequently forced to work off the clock or during their breaks. Other violations in the survey include lack of required payroll documentation, being paid late, tip stealing and employer retaliation.”

Three years ago, the Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill aimed at curbing wage theft with new laws, including tougher penalties on thieving employers.

However, unions and worker rights groups contend, even when workers win cases against employers and are owed back wages, collecting is very difficulty.

Their remedy is AB 2416, carried by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, which cleared the Assembly last month and is now pending in the Senate.

It would give employees the ability to impose liens for unpaid wages on errant employers’ property, including homes in some circumstances, and on property where the work was performed.

Filing liens would certainly increase the clout of workers in wage disputes, but business groups, calling the bill a “job killer,” contend that liens could be misused to harass property owners not directly connected to the dispute and make it very difficult for lien targets to obtain mortgages and other loans. Getting liens lifted could take months, or even years, in an overstressed court system.

The Senate Judiciary Committee listened to victimized employees and business lobbyists this week, but postponed a vote with members clearly seeking a workable compromise.

Workers should be paid for their work, employers who cheat workers out of their wages should be hammered – but liens, or their threat, could become extortionate and discourage job creation if misused.

A better approach might be to expand the state labor commissioner’s authority with even more severe penalties and perhaps the exclusive authority to file the property liens envisioned in the legislation as a last resort, and lift them when the back wages have been paid, minimizing the courts.

The state’s goal should be to fill the wallets of cheated workers, not the bank accounts of lawyers.