Santa Clara County has the highest number of wage theft claims in California, but county leaders announced plans Monday to open a new enforcement office to fix that.
Established in Sept. 2018, the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement leads the county’s data collection and research initiatives to advance labor standards, including combating wage theft. The office opened its doors Monday.
Wage theft occurs when an employer fails to pay its workers the full wages or benefits they are owed. Illegal practices include paying workers less than minimum wage, requiring employees to record and report fewer hours than they actually worked, denying meals or rest breaks and stealing tips.
At a news conference at Luna Mexican Kitchen on Monday, Betty Duong, the manager of the OLSE, was joined by county Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Dave Cortese, as well as County Chief Operating Officer Miguel Márquez, Deputy County Executive David Campos, Department of Environmental Health Director Michael Balliet, Jessica Vollmer from the Fair Workplace Collaborative and Angelina Ramos, the business director of Luna Mexican Kitchen.
Duong said the OLSE, which is one of only eight in the country and the only county-based office, will work to not only hear instances of wage theft, but also do something to fix the issue.
“This office exists because our laws protecting workers are only as effective as enforcement,” Duong said. “We exist because workers have the right to be paid what they earn, to advocate for their rights when things are going wrong and to support the businesses doing the right thing.”
According to Duong, there is currently $5 million in outstanding judgments in Santa Clara County, including one business that has more than 149 individual judgments and some businesses with one or two judgments of very large amounts.
But the office’s goal isn’t to shutter businesses that commit wage theft.
“Our goal is not to shut down businesses, but for good business to stay open, to stay competitive, and for businesses that have done the wrong thing to come back to the light with us,” she said. “Pay your judgment and carry on with business as usual.”
One way this enforcement will happen is through a Food Permit Enforcement Program, which was also announced Monday. Launched by the county’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement and the Department of Environmental Health, the program will enable the county to suspend food permits from business owners who have not paid their judgments.
According to Balliet, businesses that do not meet employee wage standards will be closed until they comply. Additionally, lists of these closures and explanations will be updated on SCC Dine Out, a food facility inspection report available both online and through its app.
Speaking through a Spanish translator, a woman named Anasales said she was not paid for all the hours she worked at a restaurant in Santa Clara. When she was paid, checks would bounce, said Anasales, who declined to provide her last name. She learned about wage theft after joining the Fight for 15 campaign and got in touch with a lawyer.
After going to the Labor Commission, the restaurant owner was ordered to pay her $10,000.
But restaurants aren’t the only businesses guilty of wage theft – a high number of complaints come from health care and construction workers. Santa Clara County recently approved additional funding to combat wage theft.
Teresa Brillante, a caregiver for almost nine years, said she would take care of a client with advanced dementia 12 hours every night, but was not paid for overtime, provided meals nor given rest breaks. She and a co-worker filed a claim four years ago.
“It took us eight months to get paid what was owed to us by the agency, and justice was finally won,” Brillante said Monday. “I can say we were just few of the fortunate caregivers, because our claims were paid off when there are so many wage theft claims waiting for judgment to be collected from the employers.”
When asked about those high numbers of wage theft reports, Cortese – who spearheaded the creation of the Office of Labor Standards – said he thinks rates are higher here because of the number of tools and resources the county has for victims.
“I think sometimes when you have high reporting numbers, it’s because you’ve created a really good reporting system and have the resources and safety measures in place to start helping people,” Cortese said.
Despite the sheer amount of work ahead, Cortese expects to see success under Duong’s leadership in the new county office.
“(Duong is a) very strong woman, a very good attorney and someone who is going to be very aggressive in running this enforcement process through this office,” Cortese said. “I think you’re going to see results right away. More importantly, I think the people who need the help the most are going to see the results right away.”