LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Los Angeles should enact a wage theft ordinance that would punish employers for failing to pay their workers, labor advocates told the City Council on Thursday.
Wage theft is "the crime wave that no one talks about because it's really all around us," said Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice.
Raul Coronel, who has worked at Marina Car Wash for 20 years, said he is sometimes forced to work without proper breaks and without overtime pay. He said that on five occasions, his employer gave him checks that bounced.
"We're not asking for much — just to be paid fairly for the work we do," Coronel said, adding he and his coworkers are trying to form a union.
"I have to support my wife and my three children with my wages, so if the owner doesn't pay all of our hours or if we get bouncing checks, it makes it really hard to pay the rent and provide food for my family," he said.
Labor advocates say wage theft includes paying less than the minimum wage, not paying overtime, forcing workers to work off the clock, workers not receiving their final paychecks, misclassifying employees as independent contractors to avoid paying minimum wage and overtime and not paying workers at all.
Councilman Richard Alarcon said the council unanimously directed the City Attorney's Office in December to draft a wage theft ordinance that should be ready for passage by early next year.
State and federal labor laws already make it illegal to pay workers less than the minimum wage or deprive them of overtime pay. But Alarcon said the problem is so pervasive in Los Angeles that he felt it necessary to have a city ordinance similar to those in Denver and Austin.
Citing a study called "Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers," Alarcon said that in Los Angeles, "30 percent of low-wage workers are paid less than the minimum wage, 80 percent are not paid legal overtime rates, and 20 percent of those who are tipped have had tips stolen by their employers."
The study estimated that every week in Los Angeles, an estimated 745,000 low-wage workers lose $26.2 million in wage theft violations.
"These activities are already illegal from a labor law perspective, but we believe that because this is so rampant, we have to be much more aggressive and this (ordinance) would give us an opportunity," Alarcon said.
He said the penalty for violating a city wage theft ordinance could range from fines to jail time.
The City Council presentation was part of a National Day of Action organized by Interfaith Worker Justice to highlight the issue.
Groups that participated in the presentation included Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, National Day Laborer Organizing Network, UCLA Labor Center, CLEAN Carwash Campaign and Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
The study can be viewed at www.unprotectedworkers.org.
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