Advocates for day laborers and other low-wage workers are pushing for a new city law that would target unscrupulous employers by making wage theft a crime in the city of Los Angeles.
They have found an ally in City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who plans to introduce a motion this morning directing the city attorney's office to write an ordinance that would criminalize nonpayment of wages.
"People think that just because they pick up somebody on the street or at a day laborer center that they don't have the responsibility to pay them if they don't like the work," Alarcon said. "This would make it illegal for somebody to do that."
Los Angeles would join a handful of cities, including Denver and Austin, Texas, that hold employers criminally responsible for not paying their employees. State and federal laws govern overtime, minimum wage and other labor standards, but the penalties are typically civil. A local ordinance would allow city prosecutors to file misdemeanor charges against employers.
Alarcon said he was motivated by a recent study that showed many low-wage workers in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago often don't receive minimum wage or overtime pay. The study, based on interviews with more than 4,300 workers, found that 26% of workers weren't paid minimum wage the week before and that 76% of those who worked overtime the previous week weren't paid the proper overtime rate. According to the report, the violations were widespread and occurred in various industries, including construction, child care and apparel.
"We were shocked ourselves," said Ruth Milkman, a UCLA sociology professor and one of the authors of the study.
Gary L. Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said people who work deserve to be paid, but that there are a lot of unanswered questions involving a possible ordinance, including what the criteria would be for an arrest and if the measure would cause additional backlogs in the courts. Before any ordinance is drafted, city officials should include private employers in the discussion, he said.
On a recent day at the UCLA Labor Center next to MacArthur Park, UCLA students helped workers draft letters to former employers demanding back pay.
Construction worker Santos Morales told the students that he was owed $415 for fixing a garage at a house four months ago.
Morales, 40, said he doesn't have the right to get a driver's license or immigration documents but that he does have the right to recover his wages.
"I am not asking for anything that isn't owed to me," he said. "I did the work."