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California lawmakers want to investigate wage theft. But unions seek a different path


On this, unions and legislators agree: Wage theft is rampant in California, and the state system set up to help stolen workers is broken.

But a Bay Area lawmaker’s call for an independent state investigation into what went wrong has drawn opposition from, of all quarters, California’s powerful labor unions. The unions are trying to block action when Senate and Assembly lawmakers meet on Wednesday to consider the audit requests.

State Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), who proposed the inquiry in January, said he is stunned.

“It is ironic that the unions are opposed to a second set of eyes on this serious issue,” Glazer said by phone.

Glazer’s office said state officials told them that workers with wage theft claims currently must wait more than two years, 780 days, for a hearing before the Department of Industrial Relations, the state labor agency.

State law requires hearings to be held within 120 days.

The backlog, as well as the labor department’s fight to fill job openings in the wage theft unit, has long been the subject of legislative hearings and administrative promises of action.

It’s time, Glazer said, “to get a no-frills picture.”

“Sometimes,” Glazer said, “the problem identified is not one that the administration wants to acknowledge. … It may not be as simple as more money and hiring more people.”

Union lobbyists initially said they would take no position on an investigation into wage theft, Glazer said.

But the California Federation of Labor is now pushing its own agenda.

“We don’t need to be distracted in the middle of all this. We’ve already done the work to find out what’s wrong,” said Lorena González Fletcher, a former member of the state Assembly who is now the federation’s general director. “We are trying to get action today.”

González Fletcher said that labor leaders have privately reached their own conclusions about what should be done.

“We have literally brought together all the experts, the lawyers, the worker centers, the unions, and we have created a whole host of enforcement tools that we need to enact,” he said.

The federation sent a two-page summary of its plans Friday to all lawmakers. His list of suggestions includes a streamlined hiring process for wage theft investigators, relaxed hiring standards, and a pay increase. He also supports legislation that would allow state sanctions against companies that misclassify their workers as independent contractors to avoid paying overtime and other benefits.

Bringing in researchers whose findings would be made public would “prevent” those changes, González Fletcher said, diverting personnel and resources.

The federation represents some 1,200 local unions with workers in retail, manufacturing, construction, hospitality, healthcare, and public government and health care, among other industries. His letter of opposition to the wage theft audit was signed by 11 other unions and union organizations, including the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers and Worksafe.

The Department of Industrial Relations has not ruled on Glazer’s audit request. The agency also did not respond to a request to interview Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower.

She was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019. For nearly two decades prior, Garcia-Brower brought wage theft cases against cleaning companies as a director of the Los Angeles-based Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, which is funded by utility services. unionized cleaners

The audit will be voted on Wednesday by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, chaired by Assemblyman David Alvarez (D-San Diego), who signed Glazer’s request. Until union opposition arose, approval seemed guaranteed.

Other items on the agenda include a request by State Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) to investigate flaws in California’s cannabis licenses. The request came in response to a series of investigations by The Times documenting widespread local corruption and bribery, the market collapse that forced small marijuana growers to close, rampant illegal cultivation that gripped rural communities and the exploitation and death of cannabis farm workers.

Publicly available information on wage theft claims is scant, and labor agency reports to lawmakers provide no information on delays. The current wait time for the hearings was disclosed to Glazer staff during a private meeting and no written report was created.

The Department of Industrial Relations did not respond to questions from The Times about wait times for hearings or whether a lack of staff has caused long delays.

A Times exposé on the widespread exploitation of cannabis workers documented cases in which workers waited more than a year for an initial conciliation conference, months longer for a hearing, and even months longer for a decision, all the while exposed to hostile employers.

State case files obtained by The Times showed there was no record of an agency response to requests by an advocate to expedite hearings for two brothers allegedly threatened with death if they did not drop their cases against a County cannabis farm. State licensed Yolo. In other cases, there were no further investigations when workers alleged that employers pointed weapons at them or engaged in patterns of exploitation of undocumented workers.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee sets the agenda for the California State Auditor’s office, whose investigations frequently detail state failings become political fodder.

The Labor Federation said it was working with several lawmakers to address wage theft issues in the Department of Industrial Relations, including state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), who chairs the Senate Labor Committee and also sits on the audit committee. Vote on Wednesday.

Cortese’s staff members questioned him and said Monday that the senator “is not working on a plan related to DIR and wage theft claims.”

Cortese and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger), in response to Times reports of abusive cannabis practices, are hosting their own public meeting on cannabis industry labor issues later this month. month.

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