California does a great job recovering workers’ stolen wages. But few get help

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Article written by Sofía Mejías-Pascoe. Click here to read this article on The San Diego Union Tribune website.

California workers who’ve had their wages stolen by employers are often on their own to recover that money – facing a sometimes yearslong process that involves tedious documentation, investigation and follow-up and often fails. 

However, a small branch of the state’s labor agency excels at getting workers their money back from employers. In fact, in San Diego, the Department of Industrial Relations’ Judgment Enforcement Unit helped recover money for three-quarters of the cases they investigated between 2018 and 2022. 

But there’s a catch: the Judgment Enforcement Unit performs active investigations, which involve in-depth inquiries and aggressive recovery efforts, for just a fraction – about 7% – of workers with unpaid wage judgments in San Diego.  

California Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower, who leads DIR, now wants to change that. 

García-Brower said she wants to invest more in her agency’s enforcement operations. 

“Unfortunately, workers win millions of dollars every year and do not see those dollars,” García-Brower said at a press conference in San Diego in March. Expanding the unit’s resources will help, she said. 

Judgments are court-orders based on the Labor Commissioner’s decision in a wage claim case. If the Labor Commissioner decides a worker is owed money and the employer doesn’t pay or file an appeal within 10 days, the decision becomes a judgment. 

But workers are often on their own to enforce the judgment, which can be time-consuming and require meticulous documentation and paperwork. That could include investigating an employer’s assets, including bank information and real estate, sending demand letters, or asking authorities to file levies or liens on their property to compel payment. 

For the small percentage of cases it does investigate, the Judgment Enforcement Unit will perform those tasks and more – including tasks that would otherwise require an attorney, spending more money and investing more time – on behalf of the employee. 

But the unit only performs active investigations on judgments for specific low-wage workers, such as those in the car wash, garment, construction, janitorial and landscaping industries. 

The Judgment Enforcement Unit can perform other tasks, such as filing a lien or levy on the employer’s assets, for any worker with a judgment, not just those from specific industries. 

But, García-Brower said, “that’s a long line.”

The unit performed levies for just 7% of total judgments in San Diego between 2018 and 2022. And it recovered money for about one-in-three cases for the workers it helped. 

To help improve those numbers, the Labor Commissioner said she recently expanded locations for judgment enforcement staff from Los Angeles to San Francisco and Riverside. 

Additionally, all 816 staff members at the Labor Commissioner’s Office, not just those in the special unit, will be trained on the recovery tools used to get workers their money back from employers, she added.

“The issue with judgment enforcement is it’s too herculean of a problem to do in isolation,” García-Brower said. “It cannot be just provided to one small office. Those 24 professionals are not going to be able to tackle the need.”

The Labor Commissioner is also focused on reducing the time it takes to adjudicate a wage claim – the process where a worker, their employer and a state official works out the dispute over wages. That process is supposed to take about four-and-a-half months, but the state often surpasses that deadline.

DIR’s budget request for the 2023-24 fiscal year includes $11.7 million to fund an additional 42 positions to reduce waiting times. 

But improving the overall wage theft claim process depends on workers, too. That’s why her office is also pushing an education and outreach campaign, García-Brower said. 

“Workers need to understand how to document, how they’ll collect all the information about their employer. If you don’t know who your employer is, if you don’t have all the details on where to locate that employer, that case is not gonna move forward,” she said. 

Kyra Greene, executive director and board president of the Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego, said the efforts from the Labor Commissioner are “important and substantial steps in the right direction.”

However, more solutions are needed to fight wage theft, which most often affects immigrants, people of color and women, Greene added. 

“We hope that in the near future we can achieve justice even faster by creating restitution funds to allow workers with judgments in their favor to access money while government agencies (use) their power to collect from employers,” Greene said in an email.