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Working In These Times

Thursday, Aug 4, 2011, 11:45 am

Good News for Wage-Theft Victims in San Francisco

BY Rose Arrieta

Members of San Francisco Progressive Workers Alliance kick off their campaign to end wage theft in May 2011 in San Francisco.   (Photo via Chinese Progressive Association )

Wage theft is a national epidemic: It's estimated that $30 billion or more is stolen from U.S. workers every year by employers.

In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors yesterday took a major step to prevent wage theft and protect low-wage workers by unanimously approving the Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance. Mayor Edwin Lee still has to sign it into law.

“While Washington was engaged in a manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling, workers and their advocates were working together with ethical businesses and government officials to make a real difference for working people and their families in San Francisco," stated  Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice.

Co-sponsored by Supervisors David Campos and Eric Mar, the ordinance, among other things, will slap stiffer penalties on employers who disregard the law and strengthen the ability of the city’s Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement to do its job.  

The measure would do the following:

  • double penalties fro employers who retaliate against workers who stand up for themselves (i.e., try to enforce local labor laws).
  • penalize employers who refuse to post notice of minimum wage requirements, who neglect to notify their workers when a workplace investigation is being conducted, or who fail to comply with settlement agreements following a dispute.
  • allow investigators to immediately cite employers for violations.
  • establish a timeline in which worker complaints must be addressed,  and allow investigators to immediately cite employers for violations.

The Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance was drafted in partnership with the Progressive Workers Alliance, which launched the Campaign to End Wage Theft this past May.

The PWA has helped Bay Area workers recover almost half a million dollars in stolen wages via legal claims, suits, employer negotiations and community campaigns.

Many victims of wage theft are recent immigrants who speak little English. They work in restaurants, as domestic workers, day laborers and the garment industry.

Many don’t know what the laws are, and even if they do they are reluctant to report for fear of losing their jobs.

But there are places that treat their workers well. For that, Young Workers United launched a “Dining With Justice” which lists of local businesses that treat workers fairly.

Low-wage restaurant workers often speak of not being granted breaks, having their tips stolen, not being paid for sick days, not being paid overtime, nor for all the hours they work.

The Chinese Progressive Association conducted a study that found 76 percent of employees did not receive overtime pay when they worked more than 40 hours a week. Approximately half were not paid San Francisco’s minimum wage of $9.92 an hour.

Take, for instance, the case of a Chinatown restaurant being sued by the City of San Francisco for $440,000 in wages plus interest for seven employees.

In their complaint, workers say they were paid twice a month with earnings of about $550, which comes out to approximately $3.02 to $3.91 an hour. All worked six days a week, 11 to 14 hours a day.

“Robbing employees of wages to which they’re entitled doesn’t just hurt working families—it also hurts honest businesses and their employees by corrupting a competitive marketplace,” stated City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

Herrera said the case stands out even “among the most egregious perpetrators of wage theft in San Francisco. They paid wages well below the legal minimum, demanded long hours with no overtime, instructed workers to lie to labor investigators, and retaliated against those who sought to protect their rights."

An attorney for the Dick Lee Pastry owners claimed the workers lied.

Donna Levitt of the San Francisco Office of Labor Standard Enforcement, (OLSE) the agency in charge of overseeing claims of employers withholding wages, told the SF Bay Guardian that 500 claims of wage theft have been handled by the office since the minimum wage law was put in place in 2004.  The office has a staff of 16 to enforce labor law. Last year they received 81 complaints about wage theft.

Since the wage law, San Francisco has recovered nearly $4.4 million in back wages for workers according to OLSE.

Supervisor Campos told the Guardian: “The fact is that even though we have minimum wage laws in place, those laws are still being violated not only throughout the country, but here in San Francisco.”

Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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