When Employers Steal Workers’ Wages – Orange County Register
By Alejandro Lazo, Jeanne Kuang, Lil Kalish, Agnes Lee and Erica Yee | Cal Matters
Some of the lowest paid workers have their livelihoods stolen by their own employers.
Employers deny workers overtime bonuses, ask them to work “out of hours” or take their tips.
In California, workers lost nearly $2 billion by not receiving minimum wage in 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-wing think tank.
Most often, the victims of wage theft are women, immigrants and people of color, according to the researchers; many work in restaurants, construction, hotels, car washes, garment companies, farms, warehouses and nail salons. These workers are among those who have suffered the brunt of the job losses during the pandemic and who have the most ground to make up for.
For years, California lawmakers have tried to address the problem of wage theft by strengthening labor laws. Most workers who file wage theft claims wait months or years for resolution; only a fraction that prevails obtains the reimbursement of lost wages.
Usually no one goes to jail for theft.
Last year, California made most wage theft a criminal offense. He also abolished the garment industry system that paid workers by the piece rather than by the hour. Now lawmakers are considering creating a statewide council to set working and wage conditions for the fast food industry. Here’s what you need to know about wage theft in California.
What is wage theft?
State officials list many ways employers steal workers’ money. Here are some common wage theft practices.
The Economic Policy Institute cited other examples, such as an employer taking illegal deductions, confiscating tips, or failing to pay tipped workers the difference between their tips and minimum wage, and wrongly classifying employees as independent contractors to pay wages below the legal minimum.
How big is the problem of wage theft?
One way to look at it is how much workers are trying to recover in unpaid wages.
Last year, California workers filed nearly 17,000 claims totaling more than $300 million in stolen wages, according to a database provided by the Office of the Commissioner of Labor. This may be an undercount; the office’s public website says as many as 19,000 claims were filed last year. State officials did not explain the discrepancy.
Either way, that’s down from previous years, when an average of 30,000 workers claimed $320 million in unpaid wages each year, the office told the Office of the Legislative Analyst in 2020. Workers recovered about $40 million, or one-eighth, of those claims, the AJO said. .
Wait times: How long does it take to recover stolen wages in California?
The state violates its own deadlines with cases of wage theft.
By law, individual wage claims filed by workers with the labor commissioner’s office are supposed to reach a hearing within 120 days. Then the office has 15 days to decide whether or not the worker owes money and how much.
This can become a court order allowing the worker to claim the money.
While the vast majority of cases are settled before the hearing, other workers have faced long delays just to get a hearing before the Labor Commissioner’s Office. The average case filed last year that actually got a decision took twice the time allowed by law. Thousands of cases filed in 2021 remain pending.
This graph measures the time between the filing of a complaint by a worker and the decision of the Labor Commissioner. CalMatters obtained data on these claims through a public records request.
Who is most affected by wage theft?
Wage theft is more prevalent in low-wage industries, say advocates who say these workers are often unorganized and reluctant to endanger their livelihoods by opposing theft.
Many of these jobs, other than construction, are service sector jobs with a history of immigrant or minority labor employment.
What does wage theft cost the family of a typical worker?
A report by the Economic Policy Institute found that California workers who were victims of minimum wage theft — who were paid less than the legal minimum wage — lost $64 in wages per week, or about $3,400 per year in 2015, the most recent data available. Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $80 stolen every week, or $4,250 a year, based on June’s record inflation rate of 9.1%.
For workers in low-wage industries, that means less food on the table, more time to pay rent, or delayed doctor visits.
A week’s worth of stolen pay can mean an empty 12-gallon gas tank in a car.
A year of lost wages is equivalent to three months of child care in California, or nearly a month and a half of rent in San Jose, nearly two months of rent in Sacramento, and just over a month rent in Los Angeles, according to Rent.com.
Ironically, a year of stolen wages equaled a year of groceries for a family of four, but not this year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he would now only pay 75% of a typical family’s annual grocery bill.
California’s History of Combating Wage Theft
California lawmakers have passed several laws in recent years to strengthen worker protections in industries where contracting out is common and to help workers collect unpaid wages.
The contracts allow big companies to escape liability for wage theft, advocates say, because big companies hire subcontractors, who directly employ workers, and are often accused of wage theft.
If jointly and severally liable, large companies would be held legally liable for any unpaid wages, as well as their contractors and subcontractors.
How do California workers get their money back?
California law allows workers several ways to accuse employers of wage theft and open a case to recover alleged losses. The vast majority of grievances are made by individual workers through a system of administrative hearings operated by the Office of the Commissioner of Labor in the Department of Industrial Relations. In theory, it’s a fast, inexpensive, and accessible way to resolve complaints without the need to go to court, with options to settle every step along the way.
– File a complaint with the Bureau of Field Enforcement. The office, which also reports to the commissioner of labor, conducts larger workplace investigations and issues citations or lawsuits against employers it believes have committed wage theft. The office relies on complaints and testimonials from workers. Unlike individual wage demands, these cases tend to be workplace-wide and the office targets specific industries, some of which have been chosen by the Legislative Assembly.
– File a complaint. A worker can bring a private lawsuit against the employer for violation of labor law. This is relatively rare, as it involves the worker hiring a lawyer. If a worker finds an attorney willing to support them, the worker can also bring an action under the Private State Attorney General Act, which allows a worker to sue the employer on behalf of the employee. State. This relieves the state of the burden of conducting its own investigation into each complaint, and the worker could represent all of their co-workers without having to ask a judge to consider it a class action.
–Seeking federal action by the US Department of Labor. An employee must allege that federal labor laws have been violated. The employee may file a wage and hour complaint with regional offices in Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Orange County, Walnut Creek, San Jose, West Covina, or Ontario.
Where do people most often file wage theft claims?
Workers are filing wage claims based on where they worked, legal experts say.
A CalMatters analysis of claims filed with the Office of the Labor Commissioner shows that San Bernardino and Los Angeles — two cities with millions of low-wage workers in warehouse, garment, restaurant and other industrial work — had the most large number of individual wage claims.
The data paints a partial picture of where wage theft is occurring in the state. It includes claims to the Wage Claims Adjudication Unit for 2021 collected from the department’s research portal and a public records request. It does not include Bureau of Field Enforcement cases, which involve multiple workers at individual employers.
Have you suffered wage theft?
If you suspect your salary is being stolen, you can start by contacting your employer or manager to see if they can fix the problem.
But if you’re generally not allowed to eat meals or breaks, and your employer takes away the tips you’ve given, you might want to seek help outside of your workplace.
Lawyers suggest keeping track of working hours and dates. Keep pay checks and pay stubs; you may need copies if you choose to submit a complaint. Also keep a log of any correspondence between you and your employer regarding the alleged wage theft.
Another option is to contact one of California’s 30 Worker Centers or organizations such as the Garment Worker Center or Warehouse Worker Resource Center, which help workers claim their rights or connect with others. workers whose wages have been stolen. Depending on the grievance, a worker center may take the matter to the labor commissioner to trigger a Bureau of Field Enforcement investigation, which would compel workers to testify.
You can also file a wage and hour complaint with the US Department of Labor, which operates regional offices throughout the state.
Neither the California Commissioner of Labor nor the US Department of Labor will ask about immigration or citizenship status.