Op-ed: San Jose stands together for fair construction practices
Construction workers at a San Jose housing site in 2019. File photo.

A thriving economy relies upon the rule of law, the assurance that fairness, equity and justice will prevail. It drives investment decisions around the globe and here at home. And for the tens of thousands of victims of wage theft who are still waiting to be paid, it is well past time for San Jose to reclaim its position as a legal and moral authority.

Wage theft affects every aspect of our economy, none more than the workers that directly feel its effects, most often low-wage earners, disproportionately women, immigrants and people of color. The crime takes many forms: not paying minimum wage or overtime, denying meal breaks, unpaid sick leave, tip theft and bounced paychecks. The costs add up, no matter how you look at them. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average worker lost an equivalent of a month and half of rent, or money to cover critical household costs, such as child care and groceries.

Wage theft also undermines fair competition, hurting responsible businesses that choose not to cut corners by underpaying workers. Those who do not only gain an unfair advantage over law-abiding companies, but also enable a race to the bottom that damages entire industries and our local economy. The median construction worker in San Jose now brings home less wages per year than construction workers in Alameda, San Mateo, San Francisco, Marin or Contra Costa. With workers likely to seek employment elsewhere, allowing contractors convicted of wage theft to avoid consequences has actively contributed to workforce shortages in San Jose.

With more than eight years of being known as the center of construction wage theft and low-road jobs, San Jose has discouraged investment in growing a skilled construction workforce, driving up costs for responsible businesses and deterring them from taking on projects here.

San Jose has a long and proud history of championing working families, fostering a vibrant business community and leading the way on policies that put people first. Today, that spirit of collaboration and shared purpose is on full display as we rally together to tackle wage theft in the construction industry. The Responsible Construction Ordinance — the product of extensive dialogue and compromise between diverse stakeholders including city government, elected representatives and the labor and business communities — represents a significant step forward in our collective effort to protect workers, ensure fair competition and build a stronger, more resilient and equitable San Jose.

The policy requires companies that have already been convicted of wage theft to pay back what they owe before obtaining another building permit. By creating new means to ensure equitable enforcement of the law, it will not only protect workers’ livelihoods but also support local construction contractors who play by the rules while holding bad actors accountable.

This ordinance is a testament to the commitment of our city, community leaders and business advocates to finding solutions that work for everyone. We commend our colleagues and partners for their dedication to bridging divides and fostering consensus, rooted in prioritizing the needs of our city above all else. Through open dialogue and compromise, we have crafted a policy that addresses the needs of workers, protects responsible businesses and strengthens our city’s economy. This process demonstrates that we can achieve more when we work together, putting aside our differences for the greater good of San Jose.

The passage of the Responsible Construction Ordinance is a crucial step in addressing the multimillion-dollar issue of wage theft that has plagued our city’s construction industry. While other cities in our region such as Sunnyvale, Milpitas and Mountain View have already taken the lead on this issue, San Jose’s ordinance signals our renewed commitment to protecting workers’ rights and creating a level playing field for responsible businesses.

We hope that this ordinance will not only bring much-needed relief to our construction workers, but also position San Jose to reclaim its role as a regional leader in setting an economic agenda that rewards innovation and fair play.

Jean Cohen is executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council. Dev Davis is a San Jose councilmember representing District 6.

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply