California lawmakers want to investigate wage theft. But labor unions seek a different path

On this, labor unions and lawmakers agree: Wage theft is rampant in California, and the state system set up to help robbed workers is broken.

But a Bay Area lawmaker’s call for an independent state investigation into what’s gone wrong has brought opposition from, of all places, California’s powerful labor unions. The unions are attempting to block the action when lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly meet Wednesday to consider audit requests.

State Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), who proposed the investigation in January, said he is stunned.

“It’s ironic to have the unions opposing a second set of eyes on this serious problem,” Glazer said by phone.

Glazer’s office said state officials told them workers with wage theft claims currently must wait more than two years — 780 days — for a hearing before the Department of Industrial Relations, the state’s labor agency.

State law calls for hearings to be held within 120 days.

The backlog, as well as the labor department’s struggle to fill job vacancies in the wage theft unit, have long been the subject of legislative hearings and administrative promises of action.

It is time, Glazer said, “to get an unvarnished picture.”

“Sometimes,” Glazer said, “the problem identified is not one the administration wants to own up to. … It may not be as simple as more money and hiring more people.”

Union lobbyists initially said they would take no stance on an investigation into wage theft, Glazer said.

But the California Labor Federation is now pushing its own agenda.

“We don’t need to be diverted in the middle of all this. We’ve already done the work to find out what’s wrong,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a former member of the state Assembly who is now chief officer of the federation. “We’re trying to get action today.”

Gonzalez Fletcher said labor leaders in private have arrived at their own conclusions of what needs to be done.

“We literally have convened all of the experts, the attorneys, the worker centers, the unions, and come up with a whole host of enforcement tools that we need to enact,” she said.

The federation blitzed a two-page summary of its plans Friday to all lawmakers. Its bullet-list of suggestions includes a streamlined hiring process for wage theft investigators, relaxed hiring standards and increased pay. It also endorses legislation that would allow state penalties against companies that misclassify their workers as independent contractors to avoid paying overtime and other benefits.

Bringing in investigators whose findings would be public would “impede” those changes, Gonzalez Fletcher asserted, diverting staff and resources.

The federation represents some 1,200 local unions with workers in retail, manufacturing, construction, hospitality, healthcare and public government and healthcare, among other industries. Its opposition letter to the wage theft audit was signed by 11 other unions and union organizations, including Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, and Worksafe.

The Department of Industrial Relations has not taken a stance on Glazer’s audit request. The agency also did not respond to a request to interview Labor Commissioner Lilia Garcia-Brower.

She was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019. For nearly two decades before, Garcia-Brower built wage theft cases against janitorial companies as director of the Los Angeles-based Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, which is financed by unionized janitorial services.

The audit is to be voted on Wednesday by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which is chaired by Assemblyman David Alvarez (D-San Diego), who cosigned Glazer’s request. Until union opposition surfaced, approval appeared to be guaranteed.

Other items on the agenda include a request by state Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) to investigate failures in California’s cannabis licensing. The request came in response to an investigative series by The Times documenting widespread local corruption and bribery, a market collapse forcing small-scale weed growers out of business, unbridled illegal cultivation overtaking rural communities, and the exploitation and deaths of cannabis farmworkers.

Publicly available information on wage theft claims is scanty, and reporting by the labor agency to lawmakers provides no information about backlogs. The current wait time for hearings was revealed to Glazer’s staff during a private meeting, and no written report was created.

The Department of Industrial Relations did not answer questions from The Times about wait times for hearings or whether short staffing has caused long delays.

A Times expose of widespread exploitation of cannabis workers documented cases in which workers waited more than a year for an initial settlement conference, months more for a hearing, and even months more for a decision — all the while exposed to hostile employers.

State case files obtained by The Times showed there was no record of an agency answer to an advocate’s requests to speed up hearings for two brothers allegedly threatened with death if they did not withdraw their cases against a state-licensed Yolo County cannabis farm. In other cases there was no further investigation when workers alleged employers waved guns at them or engaged in patterns of exploiting undocumented workers.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee sets the agenda for the California State Auditor’s office, whose investigations detailing state failings frequently become political fodder.

The Labor Federation said it was collaborating with a number of lawmakers to fix wage theft issues in the Department of Industrial Relations, including state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), who chairs the Senate Labor Committee and also sits on the audit committee making Wednesday’s vote.

Staff members for Cortese disputed that and on Monday said the senator “is not working on a plan related to DIR and wage theft claims.”

Cortese and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger), in response to Times reporting of abusive practices in cannabis, are sponsoring their own town hall meeting on cannabis industry workforce issues at the end of the month.

Most Related Links :
planetnews Governmental News Finance News

Source link

Back to top button