Two Los Angeles City Council members began a push Tuesday for a new city ordinance that would crack down on businesses that cheat workers of their pay.
"If you steal from a store, you go to jail," said Councilman Paul Koretz, who was joined by Councilman Gil Cedillo in moving to draft a proposal. "But employers who cheat their workers out of their hard-earned wages usually get away with it."
Koretz argued that a new city ordinance would give Angelenos another tool to battle wage theft, ensuring that workers get the money they deserve and leveling the playing field for businesses that follow the rules.
Wage theft can include failing to pay minimum wages or overtime, forcing workers to labor through break periods required by labor laws and illegally deducting workplace costs — such as a sewing machine or uniform — from their paychecks. A UCLA study four years ago found that the vast majority of low-wage workers surveyed in Los Angeles County had suffered some kind of wage theft, steeper rates than in New York or Chicago.
"Los Angeles is really the wage-theft capital of the country," said Tia Koonse, legal and policy research manager at the UCLA Labor Center. "Workers are simply afraid to come forward."
The exact details of the new rules have yet to be determined. Workers' rights activists suggested that they could punish businesses by revoking licenses or permits, establish a local agency to investigate theft claims or ramp up protections for workers who report such violations. Other cities have already passed local laws that take aim at wage theft, including Chicago and Seattle, Koonse said.
"We're trying to empower the city attorney to be more aggressive," Cedillo said.
City Atty. Mike Feuer said Tuesday that existing law provides "many important protections" that enable his office to take action against wage theft. "But of course we are always open to exploring additional ways to assure workers rights are protected," Feuer added in an emailed statement.
Though state rules against stiffing workers already exist, activists and researchers say the process to pursue claims with the state labor commissioner is woefully slow and often ineffective. In a study released last year, the UCLA Labor Center and the National Employment Law Project found that 83% of California workers who won such state judgments were unable to recover their lost wages, often because the culpable business had closed.
Felipe Villarreal said he was shorted $67,000 from a former job at a Westside carwash that has since been closed. He said he has yet to receive any of the unpaid money, despite winning his claim. The lost money would have made a difference for his children back in Mexico — now 18 and 24, he said.
"All we want is what we worked for," said Villarreal, who now works as a labor organizer and was one of scores of workers and activists who crowded the steps of City Hall to back the proposal Tuesday.
His story echoed that of Axel Paredes, a handyman who said he had been repeatedly underpaid in construction and warehouse jobs in the Los Angeles area. Paredes said in many cases, he was promised $9 an hour but paid only $5 or $6 hourly — too little to cover his rent or send money to his family.
"I didn't know what to do," Paredes said.
Koretz and Cedillo's push is not unprecedented: Nearly five years ago, Los Angeles leaders voted to draft new rules against wage theft, sending the proposal to city lawyers so they could hammer out details. Yet the ordinance never came back to the council for approval.
Former City Atty. Carmen Trutanich said Tuesday he couldn't immediately recall what had happened to that proposal. Koretz and Cedillo are asking to revive the old motion, which called for criminalizing wage theft and stepping up enforcement against businesses that stiff their workers.
The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce said it was awaiting more details about the proposed rules. "Everyone is against theft," said Ruben Gonzalez, the chamber's senior vice president. But, he added, "We all need to see the details of any enforcement mechanism ... and any unintended consequences, such as creating greater backlogs in our court system."
Follow @latimesemily for more news about Los Angeles City Hall.