Los Angeles City Hall. Photo by John Schreiber.
Los Angeles City Hall. Photo by John Schreiber.

With Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city leaders pushing to raise the minimum wage in Los Angeles, a coalition working to combat wage theft called on city leaders Wednesday to also take steps to ensure workers are paid the money they earn.

Members of the Los Angeles Coalition Against Wage Theft gathered outside City Hall, contending that employers are stealing wages and paying some workers less than the current minimum wage. They said more needs to be done to enforce wage theft laws in anticipation of a possible minimum wage hike in Los Angeles to $13.25 an hour, or potentially to $15.25 an hour.

Zumi Mizokami, an organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles, urged the city to hike the minimum wage to a more “livable” $15 an hour — as well as require paid sick days — but added that in order to do that, “we also need enforcement of the minimum wage.”

The coalition wants city leaders to set up a “bureau” to enforce wage theft laws and institute protections for workers against retaliation when they report wage theft.

A wage theft ordinance should also increase penalties and fees for violations, give workers the ability to sue and to collect damages of as much as two times the amount that was stolen, and give the city the authority to revoke permits held by employers found to be stealing wages, according to the group.

“Workers are dying to get paid. We need to end wage theft today,” Mizokami said on the City Hall lawn, behind a patch of mock tombstones painted with the names of workers whose wages were stolen and the amounts owed to them.

While “dramatic,” the tombstones are not very far off from reality, he said.

Mizokami cited a study that found wage theft has health consequences and is linked to mental health problems such as stress, diabetes and hypertension.

He said the practice hits employees especially hard in Los Angeles, which he described as the “wage theft capital” of the country. An estimated $26.2 million a week is stolen from workers in the area, meaning some employees are being paid even less than the current minimum wage of $9 an hour, he said.

City officials are studying San Francisco’s wage enforcement models, according to Louis Reyes, aide to Councilman Gil Cedillo, one of the authors of a motion calling for an ordinance to criminalize wage theft in Los Angeles and to enforce wage theft laws.

City attorneys had been expected to have an draft ordinance ready by this month, but Cedillo and other city leaders decided to wait until the minimum wage proposal was discussed, Reyes said. The council is expected to discuss the wage theft motion separately at an upcoming meeting, he said.

Cedillo’s co-author on the motion, Councilman Paul Koretz, spoke in support of the coalition’s efforts today, agreeing that “it’s time Los Angeles takes a stand against wage theft.”

“Workers are losing their wages, they’re not being paid at all or they’re being paid less than minimum wage or they’re not being paid overtime. And this needs to change,” he said.

“The mayor and my fellow City Council members will soon take action to raise the minimum wage, but every week in Los Angeles, a third of the workers make less than today’s minimum wage,” he said. “We can’t raise the minimum wage without addressing the issue of enforcement. Otherwise those workers currently being cheated out of their wages will remain deep in poverty.”

Koretz and Cedillo were part of the Economic Development Committee that on Tuesday ordered an independent study to be done on the proposed $13.25 an hour minimum wage, and a further increase to $15.25 an hour. The study should be completed by Feb. 1.


City News Service

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