California is known across the nation for its worker protection laws. Unfortunately, despite its historically strong labor protections, wage theft is a growing problem in the state that is difficult to combat. Federal authorities report that industries such as construction, food service and home health care experience rampant wage theft. In 2012, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor investigated nearly 2,000 restaurants and 1,500 garment firms on the West Coast for wage theft. About 70 percent of restaurants committed wage theft and over 90 percent of garment firms did so.
One survey of Los Angeles workers found that 26 percent of low-income workers received less than the minimum wage the previous week. A quarter also reported working more than 40 hours per week without overtime pay. Three-quarters reported meal break violations or working through lunch shifts.
According to data from the Federal Judicial Center, wage and hour lawsuits have risen 432 percent over the past 20 years.
While low-income workers are often the victims of wage theft, illegal practices run across incomes and professions. Recently, for example, Adobe, Apple, Google and Intel settled with 64,000 employees in the technology sector after employees of those companies filed a lawsuit claiming that each violated antitrust laws by agreeing not to recruit workers from one another. While the terms of the settlement have not officially been disclosed, Reuters reported that the companies settled for $324 million, still a fraction of the potential $9 billion at stake.
Workers can be reluctant to report violations
Federal law prevents employers from retaliating against workers who report wage and hour violations. However, many workers are still reluctant to report violations. Some employees fear physical retaliation and threats. Other workers fear that they will lose their jobs. Some workers are unaware that they have certain rights in the workplace.
Common violations include stealing tips, deducting work uniforms or supplies from paychecks, failing to provide overtime pay, refusing to allow a lunch break, or falsely classifying employees as contractors to avoid labor laws. Independent contractors are supposedly independent business people who work their own hours and work with multiple clients. However, some employers have imposed independent contractor classification as a condition of employment, even if the worker is not in his or her own business. The employer can then avoid Social Security and Medicare payments, unemployment taxes and workers' compensation benefits.
Employees who suffer from wage theft to have legal options. Employees with a successful wage and hour violation claim are entitled to backpay and other money damages, in addition to reinstatement if they were illegally fired.
Employees concerned about their rights should contact an experienced employment law attorney to discuss their situation.