LA Workers Sick of Wage Theft: City Should Pass a Local Paid Sick Days Law

By Liz Ben-Ishai and Jenya Cassidy

This week LA City Council’s Personnel and Animal Welfare Committee will make a budget recommendation that could ensure meaningful enforcement of the city’s minimum wage and wage theft ordinances. To make certain workers are protected from unscrupulous employers that steal their employees’ wages, Council should not only allocate sufficient funds to the city’s new Office of Wage Standards, it should also move ahead with plans to pass a local paid sick days law.

Los Angeles earned the dubious honor of being named the nation’s “wage theft capital” after a 2010 study found that more than $26.2 million are stolen from low-wage workers in the county each week. The study found significant numbers of workers being paid below the minimum wage, denied meal breaks, and cheated out of overtime pay. So, when the City of Los Angeles passed its $15 minimum wage last year, the inclusion of strong anti-wage theft provisions in the ordinance was one of the most important victories for working families.

Before the LA minimum wage win, California took another important step forward for workers. The state passed the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act, joining nearly 30 other states and municipalities that have enacted paid sick days laws. Prior to passage, nearly half of LA workers lacked a single sick day.

But, somewhat paradoxically, this new law comes with a new opportunity for unscrupulous employers to steal employees’ wages. Once a sick time law is in place, employers are engaging in wage theft when they fail to pay workers for sick time, prevent workers from taking sick time when they need it, or retaliate against workers who take sick time by cutting their hours. While the state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement is taking important steps toward ensuring this law is meaningfully enforced, its resources are limited and staff capacity is stretched.

For example, restaurant worker and LA resident Mario Tzita worked as a cook for years without meal or rest breaks. Like many restaurant workers, he also worked while sick because without paid sick days, a day without work was a day without pay. He submitted a wage claim to the state and will be forced to wait nearly a year before even getting an initial meeting. In contrast, the new Office of Wage Standards has set its goal to contact workers within a week of when a complaint is filed and resolve all cases within a year.

A city-wide sick days law in LA could make a huge difference for Angelenos like Mario. A local law will not only give workers more sick days, putting them on par with their counterparts in most other jurisdictions that have passed such laws, it will also be another victory against wage theft in LA. With its own sick days law, the city will have the opportunity to extend the critical wage theft protections it passed last year to workers who experience sick time violations. These include strong penalties for employers that violate the law and measures to ensure they pay the fines and wages they owe.

Just as some LA employers have long failed to pay the minimum wage or overtime, many fail to comply with the state law. And when such violations occur, workers can find it extremely difficult to get the wage they are owed.

Cities are often better equipped to ensure that workers get the sick days and wages they are due. A growing number of cities are recognizing that wage theft and sick time violations go hand in hand. Seattle’s City Council recently approved legislation that strengthens enforcement provisions for the city’s labor laws and “harmonizes” the provisions of its Paid Sick and Safe Time (PSST) Ordinance with its wage theft ordinance. Employers that violate Seattle’s sick time law will pay a higher price, while workers will be better able to reclaim what is theirs. Since Seattle’s various labor standards were implemented over the past few years, the city has recouped nearly a quarter of a million dollars in monetary remedies for employees who were subject to violations; with recent amendments, this figure is likely to grow. In Washington, D.C., Council passed an amended wage theft law in 2014 with many provisions extending to unpaid sick time, strengthening the District’s enforcement capacities.

Another way that local labor standards agencies ensure effective wage enforcement is by working closely with community groups. San Francisco and Seattle’s labor standards enforcement agencies currently contract with community groups to more effectively alert workers to their rights, and to assist them in filing complaints when they are violated. San Francisco has contracted with groups like the Chinese Progressive Association, La Raza Centro Legal, and the Filipino Community Center, which help to reach communities that might otherwise face barriers to asserting their rights. Seattle recently contracted with community organizations as well. And LA will soon follow San Francisco and Seattle’s lead, establishing a similar system of community contracts to help with outreach and enforcement of the new minimum wage law – and hopefully, soon, a new city-wide paid sick days law. This would be a big step up in enforcement capacity from the state’s relatively limited reach when it comes to the recently passed state law.
This week, LA Council Members should vote to adequately fund the Office of Wage Standards, ensuring that workers are protected from the egregious crime of wage theft. The Council should further bolster this effort to protect workers by quickly passing a strong paid sick days ordinance, which should also be enforced by a well-supported enforcement arm. Let’s make LA the nation’s capital for workers’ rights, not wage theft.