Capping a series of investigations by federal authorities over the last three years, one of Southern California's biggest garment manufacturers has signed a judgment requiring it to make sure that its contractors stop violating minimum-wage laws and other labor standards.
The Labor Department announced Thursday that the manufacturer, Vernon-based Chorus Line Corp., also agreed to provide $74,000 in back wages to 202 employees at seven of its contractors. The affected workers were either illegally denied overtime pay or were paid less than the federal minimum wage of $4.25 an hour, in one case receiving as little as $2.20.
The announcement highlights the department's stepped-up efforts in recent years to crack down on sweatshop abuses in Southern California and other major apparel manufacturing areas.
Frustrated in past attempts to curb abuses by going after the sewing contracting industry, where the worst violations occur, authorities switched their enforcement strategy and began pressuring the manufacturers that hire the rogue contractors.
That effort made headlines in 1992 when Guess Inc., the jeans maker that is Southern California's biggest apparel manufacturer, signed a consent judgment similar to the one that Chorus Line agreed to this week.
Chorus Line, which makes women's and girls' sportswear and dresses, expects to post sales of $220 million this year and is one of the Top 10 apparel manufacturers in the sprawling Southern California garment industry.
The company, founded in 1975, has nearly doubled in size since 1990 despite an industrywide slump in recent years that has dragged down many other apparel companies.
The company's lines of clothing, available at more than 7,000 retail stores nationwide, are sold under such names as All That Jazz, Tickets and Molly Malloy.
Under its agreement with the Labor Department, Chorus Line admitted no violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Barry Sacks, Chorus Line's chief executive, said company executives "have always asked our contractors to comply with the law."
He said the agreement with the federal government "will further the company's ongoing efforts to fulfill its responsibilities" under federal labor law.
But federal authorities said they have had persistent problems with Chorus Line contractors. Over the last three years, they said, they repeatedly came across contractors working for Chorus Line that broke the law by paying wages far below the federal minimum.
Although Chorus Line eventually hired a firm to monitor its roughly 80 contractors in Southern California, federal officials said the problems continued.
"I don't think they understood the enormity of the problem or, if they did, they didn't admit to it," said Gerald M. Hall, assistant enforcement chief for the Labor Department's Los Angeles district.
Federal officials estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 employees work for the contractors used by Chorus Line, and they expressed confidence that conditions for these workers will improve as a result of the consent judgment.
"We're satisfied that we've got their attention now," said William C. Buhl, the San Francisco-based regional administrator of the U.S. Labor Department.
Under the judgment, Chorus Line could be found in contempt and required to pay fines if its contractors continue to break the law.
In recent weeks, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich has cited his department's crackdown on sweatshops as one of the most effective ways of dealing with the problem of illegal immigration. He called the industry's low-paying sweatshops a magnet for undocumented workers.