Chicago Activists and Aldermen Call for New Office to Enforce Labor Laws

Justin Miller February 28, 2017

One estimate pegs the cost of wage theft for workers at as much as $13.8 billion a year. (Arise Chicago/ Facebook)

In the past few years, cities, coun­ties, and states around the coun­try have raised their min­i­mum wages and enact­ed oth­er poli­cies aimed at improv­ing the qual­i­ty of low-wage work. They did so, in part, in response to an unprece­dent­ed mobi­liza­tion of low-wage work­ers, orga­nized through the Fight for $15. Since Fight for $15 was launched in 2012, low-wage work­ers have secured an astound­ing $61.5 bil­lion in annu­al rais­es, accord­ing to the Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project.

But there’s a prob­lem: Many work­ers are still see­ing their wages stolen by unscrupu­lous employ­ers who vio­late min­i­mum wage and oth­er labor laws. One esti­mate pegs the cost of wage theft for work­ers at as much as $13.8 bil­lion a year.

Labor depart­ments under Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tions have his­tor­i­cal­ly not focused on aggres­sive enforce­ment of wage and hour and work­place safe­ty laws. And the depart­ment under Don­ald Trump isn’t expect­ed to be any dif­fer­ent. That leaves ill-equipped local labor agen­cies and work­er orga­ni­za­tions to pick up the slack when it comes to polic­ing bad employ­ers and pro­tect­ing vul­ner­a­ble workers.

To fill that vac­u­um, a coali­tion of work­er advo­cates in Chica­go is call­ing on the city to estab­lish an office of labor stan­dards that would be charged with enforc­ing the city’s new labor laws. Those include Chicago’s min­i­mum wage law, sched­uled to hit $13 an hour by 2019, its paid sick leave pol­i­cy, set to take effect in July, and its anti-wage theft ordi­nance that can rescind an employer’s busi­ness license if that employ­er is found guilty of steal­ing pay.

What would it be like if we nev­er enforced our park­ing laws? Think about it for a moment. Imag­ine that all the dri­vers could ignore No park­ing’ signs, Tow away’ signs and park wher­ev­er they like for how­ev­er long they like,” Rev. C.J. Hawk­ing, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Arise Chica­go, a work­er cen­ter, said at a press con­fer­ence last week. Our city would be thrown into chaos and grid­lock. Well, that is what has hap­pened to the lives of low-wage work­ers who expe­ri­ence wage theft. Their lives have been thrown into chaos and their finances have been thrown into gridlock.”

She cit­ed a 2009 study from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go that found that low-wage work­ers in Cook Coun­ty, where Chica­go is locat­ed, lost more than $1 mil­lion a day to wage theft.

There is a nation­al move­ment to make enforce­ment local and the time has come for Chica­go to be a part of that momen­tum and cre­ate an office of labor stan­dards,” Hawk­ing said.

While more and more cities around the coun­try have tak­en steps to pass high­er min­i­mum wage, paid sick leave, ban-the-box, fair sched­ul­ing and oth­er pro-work­er laws, a hand­ful of pro­gres­sive cities have moved beyond just pol­i­cy mak­ing, real­iz­ing that strong local enforce­ment is crit­i­cal for these types of laws to tru­ly have an effect. Since San Fran­cis­co estab­lished the first-of-its-kind enforce­ment office in 2001, Seat­tle, Los Ange­les, New York City and oth­ers have fol­lowed suit.

The Chica­go coali­tion is call­ing on city lead­ers to craft and pass leg­is­la­tion that would open an office of labor stan­dards in the depart­ment of busi­ness affairs and con­sumer pro­tec­tions, which is cur­rent­ly charged with enforce­ment, but — advo­cates say — isn’t equipped with the nec­es­sary tools and resources to effec­tive­ly enforce labor laws. The cur­rent enforce­ment strat­e­gy pri­mar­i­ly relies on work­er com­plaints. Yet a recent inves­ti­ga­tion by the Chica­go Reporter found that in the time since the city’s incre­men­tal min­i­mum wage increase from $10 to $10.50 an hour took effect, the depart­ment only inves­ti­gat­ed a quar­ter of wage complaints.

In part, the depart­ment doesn’t inves­ti­gate because work­ers don’t sub­mit the required affi­davits. And that part­ly stems from the fact that the city’s com­plaint process can be daunt­ing. The depart­ment pro­vides a copy of the worker’s affi­davit to the employ­er, which cre­ates con­cerns about intim­i­da­tion and retal­i­a­tion, espe­cial­ly among undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers. Seat­tle and San Fran­cis­co, the Reporter notes, keep affi­davits con­fi­den­tial and allow work­ers to file com­plaints over the phone to avoid cum­ber­some paperwork.

Jan­ice Fine, a labor pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty who has close­ly stud­ied cities’ bud­ding labor law enforce­ment ini­tia­tives, points to San Fran­cis­co as the gold standard.

San Fran­cis­co has had enor­mous­ly pos­i­tive results with the work that they’re doing, and their work is get­ting bet­ter all the time,” she explained in an interview.

The office, she says, has col­lect­ed mil­lions in back pay with help from local work­er orga­ni­za­tions. Groups like the Chi­nese Pro­gres­sive Asso­ci­a­tion have helped restau­rant work­ers win huge wage theft set­tle­ments, includ­ing a $4 mil­lion set­tle­ment for some 280 work­ers at a high-end dim sum restaurant.

Work­ers, work­er orga­ni­za­tions and high-road firms need to play a role in enforce­ment,” Fine said at the Chica­go press con­fer­ence. Work­ers know things that gov­ern­ment will nev­er know.”

The next step in Chica­go is to build sup­port for the leg­is­la­tion in the city coun­cil and in May­or Rahm Emanuel’s office. So far, at least four alder­men are on board, includ­ing Ameya Pawar, who co-chairs the mayor’s Work­ing Fam­i­lies Task Force and spon­sored the city’s anti-wage theft ordi­nance, and George Car­de­nas, who chairs the council’s Lati­no caucus.

Ask­ing work­ers to nav­i­gate a state or fed­er­al sys­tem … to just get paid on time is too much to ask,” Pawar said at the press con­fer­ence. It’s just not fair.”

Justin Miller is a writ­ing fel­low for The Amer­i­can Prospect. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @by_jmiller
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