An attempt to criminalize wage theft almost five years ago fell by the wayside, but the two councilmen representing Los Angeles’ Westside hope the second try is a charm. The Los Angeles City Council took a step forward July 1 in unanimously approving a direction to draft an ordinance to criminalize and enforce wage theft.
If ultimately approved, the planned ordinance would make it illegal for employers to avoid paying its workers their respective wages.
The City Attorney is expected to coordinate with the Los Angeles Police Dept. (LAPD), UCLA Downtown Labor Center, and National Day Laborer Organizing Network to draft a Wage Theft Ordinance
Councilmen Gil Cedillo, Mike Bonin, and Paul Koretz sponsored the motion.
Koretz said Los Angeles is probably the “wage theft capital of the whole country.”
“Wage theft exists where employees are illegally not paid overtime, where employees are illegally not paid a minimum wage,” Koretz said, adding there are also situations where employees might be asked to do more off the clock. “This is a disastrous situation.”
The councilman who represents areas such as Century City and Westwood added the janitorial industry is one where wage theft commonly occurs. Specifically, Koretz said office building management firms or operators would contract out for janitorial services at the lowest bid possible. Oftentimes, Koretz said, contracts are awarded at amounts where the janitorial firms would not be able to pay its workers minimum wage for the services to be performed at the contracted office building.
“This is something absolutely have to take on,” Koretz said of the proposed Wage Theft Ordinance. “We protect not only those are the lowest earning workers among us, but we also protect our economy. Those wages go right into the economy and pay for critical goods and services that they can otherwise barely afford.”
Several speakers addressed the council during public testimony, expressing the council vote in favor of the motion or sharing an anecdote of how “wage theft” impacted them personally.
Rose Marie Molina, who is the strategic manager of the Clean Car Wash Campaign, told the council many workers at car washes in the City are “no-wage” employees, surviving solely off tips.
“Every week in L.A., $26 million is stolen from workers by bad employers,” Molina told the council. “That’s $1.4 billion a year. It’s acceptable that today, in Los Angeles, there are workers who aren’t even considered low-wage. They are considered ‘no-wage’ workers. The system is broken.”
A car wash employee who addressed the council in Spanish said he would only earn about $35 in an 11-hour workday.
“The working conditions [at my] company are terrible,” Carlos Cuestas, an eight-year employee with Hollywood Car Wash, told the council. “It is not fair that this company is exploiting workers.”
Another speaker told the council some employers have taken retaliatory members against some workers who filed wage claims with community organizations.
“The system is failing all Californians,” Tia Koonse, a policy research manager with the UCLA Labor Center, told the council, claiming there are more than 750,000 low wage employees within Los Angeles alone. “Los Angelenos experience more wage theft than any other city in the country. We’re failing Angelenos and we can do better.”
Koonse suggested the path to “do better” is through consistent law enforcement.
According to the motion presented to council members, a UCLA study found 26 percent of low-wage workers were not paid minimum wage. Also according to the UCLA study cited in the motion, as many as 76 percent of workers were not paid a legal overtime rate by their respective employers.
“This same study also found that those who worked off-the-clock, 70 percent received no pay for the work they completed and 12 percent of workers who received tips had some stolen by their employer,” the motion stated, adding 43 percent of workers who complained about wages or tried to create a union were either suspended, fired, docked pay, or threatened to be reported to immigration officials.
The final vote was 13-0 in favor of the motion, with Councilmen Jose Huizar and Tom LaBonge both not present.
With the vote, the City Attorney’s office will look into drafting a Wage Theft Ordinance and bringing it back to the council for a vote.