SACRAMENTO — Julie Su doesn't back down from fights when she thinks employers are cheating their workers.
In her two years as California's top labor law enforcer, Su has taken on scores of unscrupulous businesses. As state labor commissioner, she inherited an understaffed state agency that she recalled was overwhelmed with complaints of worker abuse, unpaid overtime and management retaliation.
"I set out to make the promise of a just day's pay for a hard day's work a reality in every workplace in California," Su said in a status report to Gov. Jerry Brown being released Wednesday.
Marshaling limited resources, Su has focused much of her enforcement efforts on working conditions for the often immigrant and first-generation Americans who pick crops, sew garments, build houses, clean buildings, wash cars, bus tables and perform other back-breaking tasks. Su has filed criminal charges and civil lawsuits and issued citations that identified more than $185 million in unpaid wages and other compensation legally due workers.
Despite her aggressive efforts, Su gets high marks from business, unions and academics. They like that she shifted the agency's tactics from conducting broad workplace sweeps to targeting specific employers suspected of purposely denying rightful pay. Su also has reached out to small businesses, who need help navigating through hundreds of complex labor laws.
"As the head of the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, I set out to promote the health and vitality of our state's economy by protecting working people and providing a level playing field for honest employers to prosper and thrive," said Su, a 44-year-old lawyer.
Her agency is based in San Francisco with 420 employees and 19 offices statewide. Her salary is $138,546 a year.
Her first notable case as labor commissioner came in October and November 2011 when surveillance of Inland Empire distribution warehouses and off-site worker interviews resulted in a $1-million fine for payroll irregularities against a national logistics and trucking company.
During 2012, Su's team recovered more than $900,000 from San Francisco restaurateurs for unpaid minimum wages and overtime and for failure to provide itemized wage statements. In November 2012, the agency cited a public works contractor for failing to pay proper prevailing wages or overtime and falsifying payroll records to shave the number of hours actually clocked by workers.
This year, the pace has increased. Her office won a first victory in February when a Superior Court judge ruled that certain Southern California port drivers were misclassified as independent contractors when they were employees. The next month, she cited top restaurants, including Beverly Hills sushi bar Urasawa, for more than $500,000 in overtime violations. Also in March, she hit the Pacific Health Corp. hospital chain in Orange and Los Angeles counties with more than $7 million in wage-law violations.
"We're using all the tools in our arsenal," Su said. "We're working with the district attorneys and city attorneys to prosecute employers. If they made the calculation that it's cheaper to break the law and the chances of getting caught are slim and the cost of getting caught is marginal, we're here to change that calculation."
Her management philosophy appears to satisfy both employers and employees as California copes with 9% unemployment, said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at UC Berkeley.
"She knows that when all is said and done, enforcing the law can improve the quality of life of the people directly impacted," he said. "But also it can set a standard for all employers that improves the quality of work life in the state."
Making changes is a skill that came early for Su, the Stanford- and Harvard-educated daughter of Chinese immigrants, raised in Cerritos. She spent 17 years as a front-line fighter for Southern California's often powerless working poor, rising to litigation director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.
She lives in Cerritos with her husband, Hernan D. Vera, chief executive of Public Counsel, the nation's largest pro bono law firm, based in Los Angeles. The couple have two young daughters.
In 1995, just one year after out of law school, Su led a fight that gained international attention by rescuing 80 Thai seamstresses working as virtual slaves, 18 hours a day, behind barbed wire in an El Monte sweatshop. She helped the women get new work, immigration documents and eventually citizenship, an event that she celebrates with them annually in August.
In 2001, Su, who also speaks Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award that comes with a fellowship of $500,000 over five years with no strings attached.
"She's not out there trying to harass people who are trying to comply with the law," said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce.