The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to expand worker protections, possibly creating an Office of Labor Equity.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl recommended the new office as a way to centralize worker protection initiatives. It would be charged with promoting and enforcing county labor laws on minimum wages, for example, handling disputes and leading policy research and development with a focus on racial, health and economic equity.

“As we discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the health and financial well-being of our residents, it seems more important than ever to further explore how we can better support our workforce,” Ridley-Thomas said. “This pandemic is dynamic — and has pushed us to be dynamic in our response, specifically to support our workforce, many of whom are providing essential services and keeping our economy afloat.”

While Californians have filed more than 7.1 million unemployment claims since March, Los Angeles County has reported unemployment rates of roughly 20% over the past few months, according to the motion.

A July 2020 study by the California Employment Development Department Labor Market Information Division indicated that workplace transmissions account for almost half of COVID-19 cases statewide and Latino and Black workers are disproportionately hard-hit.

“It’s even more difficult these days to be a low-wage essential worker,” Kuehl said. “You are barely able to make it financially and to make it even worse, your employer has made clear they will not enforce COVID-19 public health guidelines. Your dilemma: should you risk your job or your life? That’s why we want to make sure that employees can report violations of our county health orders and feel confident they will not face retaliation from their employer.”

The supervisors said investing in vulnerable workers makes economic sense, pointing to studies by the Brookings Institute and Harvard Business Review showing that strong worker protections decrease turnover and increase productivity, preserve employer-employee relations, and attract economically complex industries that accelerate regional economic growth.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she liked the idea of streamlining county systems, but was concerned about setting up new offices at a time when the county is struggling financially. She asked for an analysis of costs to be included in a report back.

“I think hiring new staff to duplicate economic research that exists in the private and public is not the best use of our limited resources at this time,” Barger said. “I do support the attempts (toward) savings costs and reducing duplication of work.”

The board directed staffers to report back in 60 days on how the county can improve and centralize its efforts related to worker protections.

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