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Los Angeles is ground zero for wage theft

Each week, $26.2 million is stolen from the city’s low-wage workers

June 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

On June 14, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed into law a bill that will raise the minimum wage from $9 an hour to $15 by 2020. L.A. joins the ranks of other cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and Oakland, California, which have approved similar increases. That’s good news: According to a recent report released by the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center, more than 4.7 million men and women in California are low-wage workers — defined as someone who makes less than two-thirds of the state’s median hourly wage for full-time workers, which in 2014 was $13.63.

But the largest city in the country to guarantee a $15 per hour minimum wage is also ground zero for the corporate crime of wage theft, which can range from forcing hourly employees to work off the clock or manipulating time cards to denying legally mandated breaks or retaliating against workers for filing complaints. Each week $26.2 million is stolen from L.A.’s low-wage workers (PDF), according to an August 2014 report released by the health nonprofit Human Impact Partners, the UCLA Labor Center and the Los Angeles branch of the Restaurant Opportunities Center. That’s more than for any other city in the country.

The workers affected by wage theft are largely women and people of color. Research by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United has shown that the growing restaurant industry has a discriminatory system that limits black workers (PDF) to the lowest-paid jobs in the industry. For instance, in fine dining restaurants, they are more likely to be bussers than maître d’s. Additionally, among workers in positions that depend on tips, black women are particularly vulnerable (PDF) to low wages, with black female servers getting only 60 percent of what male servers make.

Women and people of color are overrepresented in low-wage occupations such as home care. More than half of home health aides and personal care aides work less than full time and are forced to rely on some form of public assistance. Black and Hispanic women working as nannies, housecleaners and elder caregivers in the private market are paid just as poorly, rarely receive overtime and are frequently required to take on tasks well beyond the scope of the work they were hired to perform. 

It’s time to stop being controlled by fear of what one bad boss might do.

Even in winning wage-theft cases, only a handful of workers receive any returns. A National Employment Law Project report found that in California, only 17 percent of workers who prevailed in wage claims collected any payment. To ensure more accountability, worker advocates are calling on the city’s voters to support and adopt the Los Angeles Wage Theft Ordinance, which would create a local wage theft fund and bureau, improve collections by revoking city permits for unpaid wages, increase fines for employers that commit wage theft and improve anti-retaliation protection for whistleblower workers.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the historic Justice for Janitors march that took place in 1990, during which 400 striking janitors took over the streets of Century City, a district of Los Angeles, and demanded an increase to their meager wages of $4.50 per hour. Dozens of protesters were beaten by police. But those janitors won a wage increase and union contract.

Twenty-five years later, the fight still isn’t over. Low-wage workers nationwide prepare and serve food, clean the cabins of planes, protect buildings, staff the registers at big-box stores, clean apartment buildings and hospitals and tend to the needs of patients in home care and long-term nursing facilities. Many of them, upon leaving work at the end of the day, hop on a bus to go to a second job. Those who are parents worry about their piecemeal child care arrangements. And yet their paychecks are so meager that even the most frugal planners are unable to make ends meet. Instead of supporting this low-wage workforce, some large companies are brutalizing them.

It’s time to stop being controlled by fear of what one bad boss might do. That’s why today, workers in the service industry are once again coming together at the historic Roxbury Park in Century City — as well as across the state in cities such as Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Diego — to demand an end to these unfair labor practices and the implementation of a system that keeps employers accountable.

I will be marching with them, as a long-term activist, an employee of the Service Employees International Union and a woman who was raised in the foster care system among some of L.A.’s most vulnerable people. Our hope is that low-wage workers in California and across the country, by coming together, can challenge the status quo and defeat the strategies that large corporations have used to deny their humanity and fair wages.

Melissa Chadburn has written for Guernica, BuzzFeed, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus and American Public Media’s Marketplace, among other outlets. Her first novel, “A Tiny Upward Shove,” is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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