Wage theft in San Diego returns to pre-pandemic levels as officials take aim at offenders

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Article written by Sofía Mejías-Pascoe . Click here to read this article on the inewsource website.

Policymakers across the state have pledged in recent years to curb wage theft and hold employers accountable for a problem that California workers say cost them $320 million in 2017 alone.

And while those efforts – which include initiatives from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and a new state law aimed at cracking down on employers – are only recently underway, the issue of wage theft hasn’t improved. 

In fact, reports of wage theft rebounded last year to pre-pandemic numbers. Between 2018 and 2022, the Labor Commissioner in San Diego County received nearly 15,000 claims of wage theft. In the same timeframe, San Diego County courts have ordered employers to pay back nearly $20 million in stolen wages to employees. 

But how much of that money has actually been returned to workers is unclear. 

Online records from the Department of Industrial Relations, or DIR – the state agency tasked with receiving, investigating and adjudicating workers’ claims of wage theft –  showed only 4% of that amount had been paid back to workers, though the agency said it does not always track when judgments have been paid. 

DIR’s process for workers to recover their money has been criticized for being lengthy, laborious, and relying on workers to be persistent and play detective, tracking down former employers and their assets.

For years, labor representatives and advocates have called on lawmakers to improve the state’s claim process and establish more local solutions that could make workers whole.

“The process now is broken,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a former assemblywoman for south San Diego County who’s now executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. “For the most part, it does not serve the needs of the worker.”  

Recent initiatives from government agencies in San Diego County suggest those calls for reform are being heard, but it’s too soon to know how effective those new policies and programs will be in both preventing wage theft and recovering wages for workers who have been stolen from.  

Some advocates say solutions should include governments paying workers wages they’re owed and going after employers for the money.

Wage theft “changes people’s faith in our systems,” said Kyra Greene, executive director and board president of the Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego, a San Diego research nonprofit advocating social and economic justice. 

“It is a real crime with real implications for the wellbeing of people and communities in our larger region.”

Wage theft is widespread, but solutions are time-consuming

Studies show that wage theft affects more people than other types of theft, but the legal pathways for workers to recover wages from employers who stole from them can take months to years to navigate, and sometimes those efforts do not end in employees collecting their due compensation at all.

Just 4% of wage claims filed with the Labor Commissioner in San Diego County between 2018 and 2022 were listed as completely paid off, according to an inewsource analysis of online data from DIR. The status of the remaining 96% of cases is unknown, because in most cases, DIR only knows whether an employer actually pays back the employee if one of the parties reports it, which in most cases does not happen, a DIR spokesperson told inewsource.

After receiving a judgment, a court order based on a DIR decision in the employee’s favor that says how much the employer owes, the employee is often alone to actually enforce the payment.

DIR sometimes provides legal and investigative assistance to workers who qualify, but for those who don’t, the agency recommends they turn to private attorneys, collections agencies or nonprofit legal service providers for help. 

The problem with that, labor advocates say, is that attorneys and collections agencies can be too costly for workers already down on money.

“We might be six months or more into this and they’ve had to find another job. They may have gotten behind on some bills. They may not have that affordability to chase down a private lawyer to go after these funds or help them to go after these funds,” said Derrick Robinson, senior researcher and policy analyst with the Center on Policy Initiatives. 

And in San Diego County, the sole nonprofit offering no-cost legal services for labor rights issues can’t meet the needs of everyone who needs help, according to Marisol Turincio, campaign manager for the Employee Rights Center in City Heights. 

“We do as much as we can, but we don’t have all the capacity to help every person that needs the help in the county,” Turincio said. 

More local solutions could ease workers’ pain 

Fair wages and working conditions are top of mind lately for San Diego officials and workers, including Sofia Martinez, one of many unionized workers who went on strike in recent weeks to negotiate with a county contractor for janitorial services.

Martinez has cleaned the County Administration Center for the past 10 years, working from the late afternoon until 1 a.m. 

She’s made minimum wage that entire time and that income makes it difficult to support herself and her teenage son. 

“I came here to have something better. But I think it’s not the best,” Martinez, an immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico, said in Spanish. 

Confronting wage theft and other labor issues is a top priority for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, according to Terra Lawson-Remer, supervisor for District 3 representing the coastline from Carlsbad to Coronado.

“Even one instance of a person doing their job, showing up day in, day out, working hard and then being denied the compensation that they’re due … is unacceptable and is too much,” Lawson-Remer said. 

In recent years, the board has taken aim at wage theft and other labor issues through a series of policies and programs that push toward a more local response to a widespread problem. 

In December, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a policy that, among other requirements, created a wage theft fund that would reimburse county contracted workers whose wages were stolen by their employers. 

And in 2021, the board voted to create a county Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement, which will offer a local pathway for workers to recover stolen wages. 

The office, which just recently got up and running, is establishing a fund to make whole workers who were not paid back wages through the Labor Commissioner’s process and develop a series of penalties against employers who commit wage theft, such as withholding permits and excluding them from contract opportunities.  

Advocates want to see more solutions like that. 

Gonzalez Fletcher with the California Labor Federation, a labor union coalition advocating for better working conditions, said her team is pushing to expand DIR’s budget, make it easier for the agency to hire staff and empower more local officials to pursue injunctive relief against employers who commit wage theft. 

“I think we do need to continue to expand the number of folks in government who can bring these charges and claims,” she said. 

While in the California Assembly, Gonzalez Fletcher pushed a bill aimed at making it easier to prosecute wage theft crimes. That bill became law in 2022, but so far, it’s resulted in one wage theft conviction in the county.  

Education on workplace rights should be another priority, Gonzalez Fletcher said. Her team is also working on a bill that would require high schoolers to learn about labor rights. 

“The truth is a vast majority of Californians who are subject to wage theft are either too afraid to come forward or don’t know that the law is being broken,” she said. 

On top of accountability for employers, governments need to ensure that workers are “made whole” when recovering money from the employer isn’t possible, said Greene, with the Center of Policy Initiatives. 

Governments should prioritize providing payments for workers who have been stolen from, Greene said, and use its own resources for going after the employer. 

Especially for low-wage workers who are often targets of wage theft, Greene said the system for recovering wages places the burden on employees to get justice, and often leaves them without remedies for immediate and sometimes devastating financial pain. 

“We promise people as a society that if you work hard, the system is fair,” Greene said. “Wage theft completely demonstrates that the system is not fair and that the people who are unfair to you are not held accountable.”