Railing against lawyers is pretty much a national pastime, and has been for decades. Why not? Lawyers make easy targets because litigation often results when there is no other option for the parties to assert their rights.
However, because blanket insults against lawyers are such easy things to do, this method of communication is used to inflame passions without actually discussing the underlying problems in a serious way.
Such was the case in an op-ed by the Business San Jose Chamber PAC on July 13. This op-ed railed against the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) because it is a “free money barrel for plaintiff attorneys hoping to turn an easy buck.”
I am a plaintiff’s attorney, and I will not tell you that PAGA is perfect. It was passed in 2004 because the state was struggling to stay on top of the countless violations that were slipping through the cracks. It was designed to help the state enforce the laws that it did not have the resources to do on its own, and to help collect the penalties that the state is entitled to because of employer violations.
The protocols and processes for how to file a PAGA claim have been reviewed and updated continuously over the years because this was an entirely new way to support the enforcement of laws that already exist in California. Reform is not a destination, but a process.
The premise of PAGA still holds true though, which is that the state agencies tasked with oversight and enforcement of our labor laws needed more resources to do the job. PAGA has been used by workers to enforce employer obligations to provide breaks, and to hold those accountable who misclassify and underpay their workers. It has been used by workers against employers who would have gotten away with wage theft or falsifying records because the state agencies did not have the capacity to investigate and enforce the law.
Those who rail against PAGA cannot defend the employers who violate their obligations except to say that certain violations should not matter, and instead just attack the lawyers who stepped in to provide the very support the state asked for by enacting PAGA.
Do lawyers earn fees in filing PAGA claims? Absolutely. No one works for free. If there is some expectation that gobs of lawyers should just show up and do the work of the state without tacking on the fees for their work and effort, then the state needs to ensure that its agencies that have the enforcement and oversight responsibility are properly funded.
In the meantime, if there are ideas for PAGA reform, then let us hear it. I already get enough lawyer jokes from my own friends.
Huy Tran is a partner with Justice at Work Law Group, LLP, a law firm centered on the ideals of worker’s rights and social justice.