Wage Theft Harms All of Us

As the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors considers an increase to the minimum wage, it must also ensure that wage laws are enforced. Wage theft is the illegal refusal by an employer to pay a worker the wages and benefits that he or she has legally earned. Though most businesses play by the rules, the sad truth is that many do not.

The data regarding wage theft frequency is staggering. A 2014 report by the University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center found that, in a given week, 655,000 low-wage workers in Los Angeles County experience at least one violation; roughly 80 percent of low-wage workers who work overtime are not properly compensated at another 80 percent of these workers are denied their right to meal and rest breaks. A shocking 1 in 5 low-wage workers in the County works off the clock.

This harms all of us. It obviously harms the workers, but it also harms the business owners who do play by the rules. As for the workers, victims are disproportionately immigrants, women, and people of color. I hope that the following statistic from the UCLA report shocks you as much as it did me: more than half of low-wage immigrant Latinas in the County currently earn less than minimum wage.

The reason this happens so often is because enforcement is so infrequent. Just as with increasing the minimum wage, federal and state governments have failed to adequately address this issue. Local governments throughout the nation, including San Francisco, Miami, Seattle, and Houston, have refused to wait. In fact, the San Francisco Office of Labor Enforcement is widely considered the national model.

Los Angeles must do the same. Though the City of Los Angeles has already moved to create such an office, it may make sense for the County to address wage theft region wide. My vision is for wage theft to be enforced in much the same way that the County enforces health regulations throughout the region. Imagine if every restaurant window displayed, below the blue signs there now that grade the restaurant on health hygiene, a green A, B, C, or D sign that also graded the restaurant on how it treats its workers.

At this point, it is not clear what the County can and cannot do to make this vision a reality. But it is clear, I believe, that the County should do something. This is why I have introduced, in partnership with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a motion directing County departments to propose a wage theft enforcement structure that is cost-effective, efficient, and leverages existing state and federal resources.

Not paying someone what they are owed is akin to stealing out of their pockets. Wage theft is a crime. And this crime disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable members of our society. Enforcing these laws is not only good economic policy, but also simply the right thing to do.