As Los Angeles prepares to follow in Seattle’s footsteps by increasing the minimum wage, cities across the U.S. must also take steps to enforce wage and workers’ compensation laws, and protect the rights of workers victimized by wage theft.
While wage theft has always been around, this form of workplace violation has become a hot topic in the news and in workers rights circles in recent years. This illegal practice is defined as the refusal by an employer to compensate a worker with the full wages and benefits he or she has earned. While most businesses may play by the rules, the spotlight on this problem has revealed that a shocking number still do not.
Figures on wage theft in the U.S. are staggering. In 2014 the Labor Center at UCLA released a study showing that in any given week, 650,000 low-wage workers in Los Angeles County along experience at least one violation. Nearly 80% of low-wage workers who put in overtime hours do not receive the pay to which they are legally entitled, and another 80% of these workers are denied their right to lunch and rest breaks. Most troubling was the data showing that 1 in 5 low-wage workers in L.A. County works off the clock.
These practices harm all of us, not just low-wage employees. Clearly the workers are the biggest victims, but business owners who do play by the rules also lose out. As for the underpaid workers, the majority of these are immigrants, women, and people of color. In fact, more than half of low-wage immigrant Latinas in L.A. County currently earn less than minimum wage. How could this happen in the modern American workplace?
One reason these violations are so widespread is that enforcement is surprisingly inadequate. Just as with raising the minimum wage, federal and state governments have not stepped up to the plate to address this issue head-on. This has left task to local governments throughout the country, with San Francisco, Miami, Seattle and Houston simply refusing to wait for the feds to take action.
Many argue that it’s time for Los Angeles to 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. Some workers rights activists argue that wage theft be enforced in much the same way health regulations are enforced by local governments. Imagine if below the blue signs in restaurant windows grading their health hygiene, restaurant also had to display a green A, B, C, or D sign indicating how the restaurant treated its workers.
At this point, it remains unclear what local government and cannot do to make this vision a reality. But given the rampant problem of wag theft, something clearly must be done immediately. Not paying someone for work they have done is no different than stealing out of their pockets. Wage theft is a crime. Moreover, it is a crime that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of our society. Enforcing these laws is not only good economic policy: it’s an urgent moral imperative.