Co-Author of Study: Lowest Paid in LA Hit Hardest by Wage Theft


Los Angeles, CA A recent report titled "Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles: The failure of employment and labor law for low-wage workers" documents a particularly high rate of workplace violations in Los Angeles. "This study focuses on low-wage workers," said Ruth Milkman, one of the study's authors and a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the City University of New York. "Our focus is the low end of the labor market where many legally mandated standards are not being observed."

The report focuses on the findings of a survey of 1,815 workers in Los Angeles County, in conjunction with surveys conducted in Chicago and New York City in 2008. The respondents included many unauthorized immigrants and other vulnerable workers who are often excluded in standard surveys. The report found that minimum wage and meal break violation rates are higher in Los Angeles than in New York and Chicago.

Alarmingly, the survey found that low-wage workers in Los Angeles regularly experience minimum wage and overtime violations and they are often forced to work off the clock or during their breaks. "Other violations include lack of required payroll documentation, being paid late, tip stealing, and employer retaliation," said Milkman.

Domestic workers are vulnerable to labor violations in all three cities, but again, the survey showed especially high rates in LA County. "While some employers are well aware that they are breaking the law, there is a definite lack of knowledge in this area among employers of household workers," added Milkman.

Milkman said the study took several years, looking at key occupations and industries where the median pay rate was below 85 percent of the median wage in LA County, based on US Census data. "To participate in the survey, workers had to be employed in one of those occupations or industries," said Milkman. "We also wanted to find hard-to-reach people in the work force, such as unauthorized immigrants. Through the help of community groups we were able to recruit the first few survey respondents, and they in turn recruited others who were eligible. Starting from a handful of respondents, we wound up with more than1800."

The Los Angeles study reached the following conclusions:

  • Almost 30 percent of the workers sampled were paid less than the minimum wage in the work week preceding the survey: 63.3 percent of workers were underpaid by more than $1.00 per hour.

  • Among all respondents, 21.3 percent worked more than 40 hours for a single employer during the previous work week; those employers were therefore at risk for an overtime violation. Almost 80 percent of these at-risk workers were not paid the legally required overtime rate by their employers. Respondents with an overtime violation worked an average of 10 overtime hours during the previous work week.

  • Nearly one in five respondents stated that they had worked before and/or after their regular shifts in the previous work week and were therefore at risk for off-the-clock violations. Within this group, 71.2 percent did not receive any pay at all for the work they performed outside their regular shift.

  • Among all respondents, 89.6 percent worked enough consecutive hours to be legally entitled to a meal break. However, more than 80.3 percent experienced a meal break violation in the previous work week.

  • California law requires that employers provide workers with 10-minute rest breaks during each four-hour shift (or two 10-minute rest breaks in a standard eight-hour shift). 81.7 percent of respondents eligible for rest breaks were either denied a break entirely or had a shortened break during the previous work week.

  • California law requires that all workers??"regardless of whether they are paid in cash or by check??"receive documentation of their earnings and deductions. However, 63.6 percent of respondents did not receive this mandatory documentation. 45.3 percent were subjected to such illegal deductions.

Of course, not all employers abuse their employees and the study noted that many low-wage employers comply with wage and labor laws. On the other hand, some small businesses claim they are forced to violate wage laws to remain competitive. "Such employers are perfectly aware that they are not obeying the law, but that is not the case among all employers," said Milkman.

Many of the workers in the survey were afraid of retaliation. "Those who complained were often fired or demoted, or given undesirable jobs or schedules??" the usual kinds of things employers do when they are unhappy with the employee. And a number of unauthorized immigrants told us that they were afraid of being reported by their employers to immigration authorities in retaliation for complaints."

Milkman said the report had gotten a positive reception. "Many members of the general public were shocked, and rightly so. Now the biggest danger is complacency, if nothing is done to fix this problem."

The LA City Council is currently considering passing a wage theft ordinance, which will make it a criminal offence if employers violate wage and hour laws. And there are more steps to take at the state and federal level.

In response to the 2008 report, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said, "There is no excuse for the disregard of federal labor standards ??" especially those designed to protect the neediest among us… [this] report clearly shows we still have a major task before us." Solis hired 250 more wage-and-hour investigators in November 2009.

"Right now there is a lot of concern but it is important that there be extensive follow up and beefed-up enforcement," said Milkman. "It's a big job but there are some positive signs."

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