Wendy Maeda / The Boston Globe / Getty Images
Wendy Maeda / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

Washington has failed to enforce labor rights. Can cities step in?

With cities raising minimum wages and passing paid sick leave, communities must make sure employers comply with the law

August 3, 2015 2:00AM ET

In the past year Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle have all scheduled minimum wage increases, to rates ranging from $12.25 to $15.00. At least 18 cities and four states now have passed paid sick leave laws. San Francisco also passed the Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights, which will guarantee employees fair notice of their schedules for shifts.

All these measures create important improvements for working families. But how can these newly won rights be protected?

The federal government is unlikely to help. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has fewer than 1,500 investigators for America’s 135 million-person workforce — about one for every 96,000 workers. And state-level labor departments aren’t faring much better.

With this in mind, some local leaders have turned to a surprisingly simple solution: enlisting community members to help monitor and enforce new protections.

In Seattle and San Francisco, city governments have been partnering with community groups and workers centers to ensure new protections are more than just words on paper. These groups, embedded in the neighborhoods and workplaces with the highest risks of abuse, are not only well prepared to identify violations and spread awareness of new laws — they serve to empower communities by giving them the tools to protect their workers’ rights.

There will be a need for greater enforcement throughout the country as more cities expand city-level protections for workers’ rights. Seattle and San Francisco could provide important models, drawing on a vibrant American tradition of mutual-aid and self-help. 

Paycheck vigilantes

In 2009, San Francisco began to enlist local non-profits to educate workers about the city’s labor laws and to refer reported violations to city investigators. Although San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement has just 20 paid staff to cover the city’s 450,000-member workforce, it has managed to use community partnerships to great effect.

Thirty percent of the complaints the city receives are directed from six community groups: the Chinese Progressive Association, La Raza Centro Legal, Dolores St. Community Services, Filipino Community Center, Young Workers United and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Many of the workers in contact with these neighborhood organizations do not speak English, or they are less willing to approach civil servants with reported violations than community organizations they are familiar with. As Donna Levitt, a manager at the city labor office, told Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect, “Workers feel more comfortable going to a community group than a government agency.”

In Seattle, the establishment of one of the country’s first $15 minimum wage laws was accompanied by the creation of a new city agency, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. Like authorities in San Francisco, the Seattle office will contract with local community groups to ensure enforcement of its landmark law.

If we are to rebuild America's middle class, labor laws need to be enforced — and we cannot wait for the federal government to do it.

A quarter of all Seattle workers make less than $15 an hour, making regulation a daunting task. And the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has justone investigator for every 171,744 employees in the greater Seattle area. Advocates hope that partnering with existing networks of organized community groups will hinder unscrupulous employers' ability to skirt the law and cheat employees out of fair pay.

Since the Seattle project is new, it hasn’t yet established much of a track record yet. But the need is clear, given reports of widespread flaunting of guaranteed paid sick leave.

San Francisco’s community partnerships have so far focused on the problem known as “wage theft.” This occurs anytime employees are not paid legal or agreed-upon wages for their work — be it getting paid below the minimum wage, being forced to work off the clock or having to give their tips to the boss.

A December 2014 Department of Labor study of over 980,000 workers found that as many as 10.9 percent of low-wage workers in California and 19.5 percent of low-wage workers in New York had wages stolen each month. Across the two states, minimum-wage violations amounted to $195.2 million in monthly wages taken illegally from workers. The study showed that for more than 15,000 families this made the difference between being above the poverty line or not.

Violations reported by community groups in San Francisco have resulted in significant settlements. In one case, involving 280 workers at a dim-sum restaurant, damages totaled $4 million.

“We spent years … building a core of grassroots worker-leaders in the community who are willing to fight for change,” said an organizer involved in that campaign. This grassroots muscle proved critical in bolstering the city’s ability to enforce legal mandates.

American tradition

Turning to communities to enforce economic justice laws has a precedent in American history going back to the years of World War II. The Roosevelt-Era Office of Price Administration (OPA) used citizen enforcement during the inflationary 1940s to protect consumers by asking ordinary people to report the prices of everyday goods to federal regulators. The agency succeeded in ensuring that prices for groceries and other necessities were kept affordable during the war effort.

Historian Nelson Lichtenstein writes in his book “State of the Union: A Century of American Labor” that “In 1945 OPA employed nearly 75,000 and enlisted the voluntary participation of another 300,000, mainly urban housewives, who checked the prices and quality of the consumer goods regulated by the government.” And although some sales executives complained about having their products under the watchful eye of a phalanx of volunteer housewives, OPA chief Chester Bowles called the volunteer price checkers “as American as baseball.”

Today’s partnerships between cities and local non-profits could similarly use the power of community action to make sure employers follow the law. New measures mandating paid sick leave and higher minimum wages are important steps toward addressing economic inequality. But if we are to rebuild America's middle class, these laws need to be enforced — and we cannot wait for the federal government to do it.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

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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