L.A. leads New York, Chicago in abuse of low-wage workers, survey says


Low-wage workers in the Los Angeles area are even more likely than their counterparts in New York and Chicago to suffer violations of minimum wage, overtime and other labor laws, according to a new UCLA study being released today.

The study found that almost nine out of 10 low-wage workers surveyed in Los Angeles County had recently experienced some form of pay-related workplace violation, or “wage theft.” Almost one in three reported being paid less than the minimum wage and nearly 80% said they had not received legally mandated overtime.

“We knew these violations were happening, but we never really imagined it was as prevalent as this study demonstrates,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist and principal author of the study, conducted by UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

The authors described the study as a ground-breaking effort to quantify the plight of a vulnerable, largely immigrant population that is often missed in standard surveys.

Los Angeles employees also reported working off the clock, not receiving proper meal and rest breaks, being forced to work despite injuries and facing retaliation from employers for complaining or trying to start a union. Almost one in five Los Angeles restaurant employees and others receiving tips reported that employers or supervisors illegally pocketed all or part of their tips.

The study found that small and large employers across a broad swath of industries in Los Angeles County regularly violated labor laws. “These problems are not limited to the underground economy or to a few bad apples,” the report said.

Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said he had not seen the study, but that the vast majority of area employers comply with all state and federal labor laws. “We do not condone any employers who do not comply with the law,” Toebben said.

The report is part of a larger study, released last year, that examined the predicament of low-wage workers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The new report focuses on Los Angeles County, home of the nation’s largest population of undocumented workers.

“In nearly every case,” the study stated, “the violation rates are higher in Los Angeles than in New York and Chicago.”

The reason for the pervasiveness of abuses here, the authors said, is that certain sectors of the Los Angeles economy, including garment manufacturing and residential construction, have embraced business strategies that involve widespread violation of labor laws. Although all three cities have large immigrant populations, few low-wage workers in Los Angeles have union representation, and many work in service industries or in apparel manufacturing. But proponents of immigration restrictions argue that the very presence of so many illegal immigrants creates a climate of exploitation.

“Obviously, the fact that so many of these workers are in the country illegally does provide unscrupulous employers the opportunity to take advantage,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The study also suggests that low-wage workers in Los Angeles County seldom benefit from the legally mandated workers’ compensation system for employees who become sick or injured on the job.

Only 4.3% of Los Angeles respondents who had experienced a serious on-the-job injury during the previous three years had filed a workers’ compensation claim to pay for medical care or missed days of work, the study found. Whether this is because employers didn’t have the mandated coverage, didn’t inform employees or pressured workers not to file was unclear, Milkman said.

The study, which took five years, involved detailed interviews in 2008 with 1,815 workers in Los Angeles County, all from low-wage professions, where average salaries were close to $8 an hour. Those surveyed included garment workers, domestics, restaurant employees, janitors and construction workers.

The surveyed population is representative of about 17% of all workers in Los Angeles County, or almost 750,000 people, the study said. More than half of the participants (56.4%) were undocumented immigrants -- a fact that created a vulnerability exploited by employers, the study said. The great majority, almost 75%, were Latino. Almost 60% said they had less than a high school education.