Janitors, housekeepers, airline and restaurant workers were among participants supporting legislation to end wage theft at a town hall meeting Friday in Highland Park at Franklin High School.
Senate leader Kevin de Leon spoke about his legislation, SB 588, the Fair Day’s Pay Act, which he said would strengthen the State Labor Commissioner’s ability to collect wages owed to employees.
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Hard working employees shouldn’t have to go hungry or live in crowded places because they don’t earn enough, said De Leon, who represents Highland Park, Vernon and Boyle Heights.
“It is criminal that [business owners] have stolen those wages from you,” he told the gathering. “Why? Because you have to pay your bills, your children’s education. You need your money to survive!”
In California, one in three workers is paid less than the minimum wage and every week in Los Angeles about $26.5 million in wage theft violations occur, according to the California Fair Paycheck Coalition.
Long lines, language barriers and the potential loss of paid work days prevent many employees from filing claims to regain lost wages, according to De Leon. The government’s existing system for collecting unpaid wages is also complex and ineffective, making it harder for workers and easier for bad employers to get away with not paying their employees what’s owed.
Those who do file a claim and win, according to the coalition, are rarely compensated.
“Five out of six workers who win their theft cases never see a dime” due to the complexity of the process, says the coalition.
“This is a situation happening every day in California and employers have been getting away with it,” SEIU President David Huerta told EGP.
Examples of wage theft include employers who pay less than minimum wage or who pay workers for fewer hours than worked, as well as employers who misclassify workers as independent contractors or who do not pay over-time as required by law.
“This issue gets worse with undocumented workers because they become silent victims,” Huerta said.
A 2010 University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center study found that local low-wage workers are robbed of about $1 billion in wages each year.
The harm caused by wage theft is not just financial, but also poses a health and wellbeing risk to workers in low-wage jobs and their families with poor living conditions, said Fabiola Santiago, a researcher with the Human Impact Partners.
“When workers experience wage theft they don’t have money to put healthy food on their table,” that leads to anxiety, stress and depression, she said. “Income is the strongest determination of health,” she added.
It’s time to put legal protections in place so workers’ wages are not stolen and “they can live a better life, for themselves and for their children,” De Leon told EGP.
“Life is hard enough, but having your wages stolen by big corporations is criminal,” the senator said.
SB 588 targets businesses that owe money to employees. Supporters say it will reduce abuse of corporate laws by not allowing businesses to hide behind sub-contractors or by changing their name. If passed, SB 588 would give the labor commissioner the power to collect wages owed to workers.
De Leon’s goal is to get the bill passes in the Assembly and on the governor’s desk by September.
Following the meeting, workers marched to the El Super store on York Boulevard in Highland Park, which was recently fined by the State Labor Commission violations of worker safety and wage laws.