LOS ANGELES (CNS) — The Board of Supervisors have voted to create an office to help enforce Los Angeles County’s new minimum wage and prevent “wage theft.”
Supervisor Hilda Solis recommended setting up the program to investigate claims of wage theft.
“This is a big historic step for us,” Solis told her colleagues. “It sends a strong message to employers, especially those that don’t play by the rules.”
The Nov. 17 vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Michael Antonovich dissenting. He said it was the state’s job to enforce wage theft and he’d rather see the $408,000 needed to set up the new office spent on social service programs.
The board voted in September to adopt a minimum wage in unincorporated areas of the county that will increase to $15 by 2020.
Enforcement is critical, said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, calling state enforcement efforts “anemic at best.”
“It is imperative that Los Angeles County crack down on unscrupulous employers because wage theft is both illegal and immoral, victimizing not only workers, but their families,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Wage theft can include not paying legal minimums, refusing to pay overtime, not giving employees meal or rest breaks, making under-the-table cash payments or inappropriately classifying employees as contractors to avoid paying benefits.
Residents and advocates shared stories of abuses with the board.
One workers’ rights attorney said she represented bakery employees who have to be at work at 3 a.m.
“They work for 10 to 12 hours. They make basically three dollars an hour and that has not been the minimum wage in almost 35 years,” said Yanin Senachai of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Another advocate said abuses were “often indistinguishable from human trafficking cases,” telling the story of a woman who was forced to go to the bathroom in a bucket because she wasn’t allowed to leave the kitchen where she worked.
A report by the county counsel found that the percentage of wage abuses were highest in the garment industry, with workers in domestic services, building services and retail businesses also experiencing high levels of wage theft.
Solis said in a statement following the board’s vote that immigrants and minorities are disproportionately affected by wage theft.
“Immigrants suffer minimum wage violations at twice the rate of their native-born counterparts,” Solis said. “African-Americans suffer wage theft at twice the rate of their white counterparts. More than 50 percent of immigrant Latinas in the county earn less than the minimum wage.”
Business owners raised concerns about overzealous enforcement.
“Consider the local bakery looking to correct an honest mistake,” said Alex Davis of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association.
Davis asked the board to engage businesses in working out the details of enforcement.
Solis asked for further study of how the county might expand its business licensing and then use licenses to enforce the payment of wages.
Solis stressed, however, that the program would focus on education and help “level the playing field” for those who abide by the law.
“We … want small businesses to succeed,” Solis said.
A representative from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce read a letter from chamber President and CEO Gary Toebben.
“We are especially supportive of efforts to focus on education and compliance before you move to punitive measures,” Toebben wrote.
Others agreed with Antonovich that the county should leave enforcement to federal or state officials.
A county lawyer was among those who countered that federal and state governments were in the business of enforcing their own minimum wages, which are lower than the county’s, and that both had significant backlogs in addressing complaints.