California’s strong labor laws aren’t enough to protect workers, report says

A worker stocks a grocery aisle with cereal.
A study by researchers at Harvard and UC San Francisco found that 91% of California service sector workers surveyed experienced at least one labor violation in the last year at work.
(Los Angeles Times)
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Although California has some of the toughest labor laws in the country, a new study has found workers routinely suffer violations while on the job.

A team of researchers from UC San Francisco and Harvard University earlier this year surveyed 980 California workers at dozens of the state’s largest retail, food and other service sector companies. The workers reported frequent abuses over pay, work schedules and other issues.

The study found, for example, that 41% of the workers surveyed had experienced at least one serious labor violation in the last year, such as being required to work off the clock, not being paid overtime, or being paid less than minimum wage, according to the report, which was released this week.


Violations around paid sick leave and meal breaks were also common, the researchers found. More than half of workers, 58%, were not given proper rest breaks.

All told, 91% of the workers surveyed experienced at least one violation in the last year, the study found.

The findings seemed at odds with the fact that California has led the way in raising labor standards, said one of the study’s authors, Daniel Schneider, a professor of social policy and sociology at Harvard He and his co-author, Kristen Harknett, a UCSF sociology professor, wanted to understand why the state’s rigorous laws weren’t doing more to protect workers from abuse.

The survey of workers, Schneider said, showed it was common for workers not to report problems. Many, he said, “have been robbed of their time and their wages and the vast majority do not come forward.”

Schneider said the study found that workers who came forward to report problems to someone inside their company were often met with retaliation or other negative consequences, and that workers are unlikely to seek help from regulatory bodies such as the state labor commissioner.

“This is not to say that the laws are ineffective, but that their full promise isn’t realized when they are being violated so routinely,” Schneider said. “We need a robust system of enforcement to ensure these labor laws are being enforced and complied with.”


The results of the new study come against the backdrop of renewed debate over a controversial California law known as the Private Attorneys General Act that gives workers the right to file lawsuits against their employers over back wages and to seek civil penalties on behalf of themselves, other employees and the state of California.

A business-backed ballot initiative would hurt workers, labor researchers say. But proponents say lawsuits don’t help workers and hurt small businesses and nonprofits.

Feb. 23, 2024

An initiative seeking to gut the act will appear on the ballot in November, the culmination of a long-running effort by business groups to scrap it.

Backers of the ballot initiative argue the law has resulted in a slew of lawsuits that small businesses and nonprofits have little ability to fight, and say that the long, costly lawsuits workers must pursue result in their getting less money than if they had filed complaints through state agencies.

Although not an expert on the law, Schneider said he believes there should be “more avenues for workers to come forward, to pursue some kind of redress, not fewer.”

The recent study is limited in scope, Schneider said, and does not capture the experiences of undocumented workers or those in domestic, agricultural and construction jobs where violations may be even more common.

Since the survey focused on workers at large firms, it leaves out service sector workers employed at smaller firms, which also likely experience violations at higher rates, he said.


Another study published this month by researchers at Rutgers University found that minimum wage violations have more than doubled in some major metro areas in California since 2014.

Workers in the Los Angeles, San Jose and San Diego metro areas who had been paid below minimum wage lost on average about 20% of the money they were owed, or as much as $4,000 a year, the study found.

In the San Francisco area, losses were even more steep, with workers losing an average of $4,300 to $4,900 annually to minimum wage violations, according to the study.