State labor investigators raided 14 clothing manufacturers in Orange County on Thursday, shut down at least two of them and issued more than $63,000 in fines.
The raids were part of a two-day, statewide sweep by teams of investigators from the state labor commissioner's office and state Department of Occupational Safety and Health in cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento.
"This year we're making sure garment contractors get a lot of inspections because we're letting them know we're serious," said Jose Millan, a spokesman for the labor commissioner's office in San Francisco.
At Ly's Fashions in Garden Grove, investigators found that owner Lien Ly had no payroll records for her employees and could not prove she had workers' compensation insurance, Millan said.
Ly is one of a number of Orange County contractors who sew for the Los Angeles junior sportswear label Rampage. She maintained that her employees receive the minimum hourly rate of $4.25 an hour.
"I will go to Los Angeles and fix everything," Ly said after investigators cited her for violations and then shut down her business in the 11900 block of Westminster Avenue. "I want to start my business again," she said, closing and locking a rear door.
John Duncan, deputy director of the Department of Industrial Relations, said that judging from citations issued during the raids Wednesday and Thursday, Orange and Los Angeles counties had the highest numbers in the state.
Investigators raided 14 businesses Thursday in Orange County, mostly in Santa Ana and Garden Grove, and issued 23 citations totaling $63,100 in fines. In Los Angeles County, they raided 41 locations and issued 54 citations totaling $292,900 in fines. In addition, they found three violations of child labor laws, Duncan said.
Isabel Cruz of Garden Grove, a Latina mother of a 12-year-old boy, had spent the morning answering investigators' questions when she heard that the state was closing the shop where she worked. She grabbed her purse, put on a sweater and walked out.
"I don't know what I'm going to do now," said Cruz, who was hired to do piecework at $2.50 per dress she sews. "I guess I'll have to go out and look for work again."
Each dress takes more than two hours of work, she said, which computes to about $1.25 an hour. The minimum hourly wage is $4.25.
Lien Tran, 24, a garment worker in another shop, said she got the job after answering a help-wanted advertisement in a Vietnamese language newspaper.
"I attend school at night and I just started working here," Tran said, adding that she is paid the minimum salary.
Thursday's inspections were part of the state's ongoing program to crack down on labor abuses, triggered in part by an investigative series by The Times Orange County Edition in 1989.
The series highlighted a growing pattern of labor abuses, including wage, hour, child-labor and record-keeping violations.
"I think the message is definitely getting through, and I also believe people are surprised of the magnitude of the problem, especially in Southern California," Duncan said.
Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) introduced a garment worker bill after the Times series outlined how a new wave of so-called sweatshops were moving from Los Angeles to Orange County.
But the bill, which would have held manufacturers liable for labor abuses committed by their contractors, was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1990 because of the burden he said it would have placed on garment manufacturers to monitor and control independent contractors. Deukmejian said that regulation of the industry properly rests with the government and not the industry itself.
Typically, entrepreneurs rent space in any of the county's growing number of small industrial complexes. The buildings are usually plain, single-story units with a small front door and a large garage door that opens into a warehouse housing sewing machines, ironing boards and dozens of clothing racks.
Enforcement is, at times, a cat-and-mouse game as state investigators march in through front doors of businesses while workers walk out of the rear doors. At one shop in Garden Grove, the owner saw the investigators parking their cars and yelled to her workers, "Everybody out! Get out! Go wait at McDonald's."
Millan said that during raids in Los Angeles, some owners were telling Latino workers that "we were immigration and the workers just fled. . . . We have to explain that we're there to talk to them to gather information, nothing more."
Investigators said they levy fines based on the total number of employees.
"Time cards, hourly wages, conditions inside the business, we need to talk to the employees to know all of this stuff," Millan said.
While owners face thousands of dollars in fines, the people caught in the middle during inspections "regrettably" are the workers, Millan said.
One of the biggest raids in the state occurred in August, 1990, when more than 70 sewing shops in Orange County were inspected, resulting in citations that amounted to $63,000.