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Study Cites Drop in Enforcement of Labor Laws

Workplace: State officials defend their record, say they have added staff positions to beef up their efforts in last two years.

June 30, 2001|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Labor law enforcement has declined markedly in California despite evidence of widespread violations in low-wage restaurant, janitorial and garment jobs, according to an analysis by the California Works Foundation.

The labor-backed group found that by several measures--funding, staffing ratios and number of inspections--enforcement of laws covering wages, hours, health and safety was lower in 2000 than at the turn of each of the last three decades.

"It is unfortunate that state enforcement efforts have eroded at a time when the growth of low-wage work and the sharp rise in income inequality make aggressive enforcement efforts all the more important," said Sally Covington, director of the 2-year-old nonprofit group, which is funded by grants and the California Labor Federation.

Spokesmen for Gov. Gray Davis and the state Department of Industrial Relations defended their record, saying the state has added more than 100 enforcement positions in the last two years and that the trend is now moving in the right direction.

"This report reflects what happened over the last 10 years," said Dean Fryer of the industrial relations department, which oversees all labor enforcement actions. "We know, and it's been well reported, that the staff declined. But we've turned that corner a bit."

The Works Foundation report acknowledges a recent increase in staffing. But even with those additions, staff-to-worker ratios are 36% lower than they were in 1980, Covington said. "It's a step in the right direction but not nearly enough," she said, "especially when you have a high growth of low-wage industries and an immigrant work force."

Low-wage workers, especially recent immigrants who may have limited English skills and fear deportation, are hurt most by poor enforcement, the group asserted. Indeed, spot checks by state and federal authorities of immigrant-dependent industries such as garment, food services, janitorial services and agriculture have found extremely high rates of minimum-wage and overtime violations.

But the report noted that legitimate businesses also suffer from the lack of enforcement because they must compete with employers who cut costs by underpaying workers or skirting safety regulations.

The Bureau of Field Enforcement, which looks at wage and hour issues, made 19% fewer investigations in 2000 than it did 10 years earlier, despite a 13.5% increase in the number of state workers. Similarly, health and safety inspections declined by 47% from 1980 to 1999, according to the report.

The findings were underscored by a feisty demonstration by immigrant workers at the governor's office in downtown Los Angeles on Friday. Organized by several advocacy groups, the workers had been prepared to testify at a state hearing on labor law enforcement. Many said they had brought documented cases of wage and hour violations to state offices, only to wait as long as a year without a response.

The hearing was postponed until July 26, but the workers stayed to picket and demand an audience with Davis.

They chanted, "Davis, escucha. Estamos en la lucha." ("Listen, Davis. We are in the fight.")

A delegation of workers--including some who'd walked precincts for Davis during his campaign-- met for 45 minutes with Eric Bauman, who directs the governor's Los Angeles office. Bauman later addressed the full crowd of about 150, agreeing to pass on their demands for more trained, bilingual staff, greater accountability and a meeting with Davis.

"The workers were agitated. They were frustrated," said Victor Narro, legal counsel for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, one of the protest sponsors. "They didn't want to hear a lot of politics. They knocked on doors for [Davis], and they feel he hasn't done anything for them."

Several workers spoke at a rally before the meeting. They included Yeny Saavedra, a garment worker who said he filed a claim for $10,000 in unpaid overtime in February and still has not collected anything.

Day laborer Mateo Cruz presented evidence that he worked for one employer for two weeks and then was threatened with deportation when he asked to be paid. "I went to [the labor commissioner's office] a year ago, and I'm still waiting for a response," he said.

"We've still got a ways to go," said Fryer. "We're not there yet. . . . Of course, there's a lot of frustration. There's just a huge workload."

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