On July 18, 2016, the Surdna Foundation, Rutgers’ SMLR Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO) and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) co-convened a day-long conversation on how to strengthen enforcement of state and local labor policies. The meeting was hosted by the Surdna Foundation at its offices in Manhattan. It was an unprecedented coming together of foundations, worker centers, unions and community organizations, public interest and legal aid groups and government officials from New York, California, Massachusetts, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. Participants talked about challenges and barriers to stronger enforcement and shared emerging strategies and best practices.
Over the last decade, minimum wage laws that are higher than the federal requirement of $7.25 have been passed in 29 states and 15 cities. Propelled by the “Fight for Fifteen” movement of labor and community groups, in 2015 fourteen cities and states including Seattle and San Francisco, approved the previously unimaginable rate of $15 an hour. In 2016, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington DC followed suit and in the past few months, California and New York became the first two states in the nation to adopt it.
Our federalist system is enabling enormous labor policy innovation at the state and local levels. In addition to minimum wage increases, thirty states and 20 cities and counties have adopted anti-wage theft laws, five states and 27 cities have enacted paid sick leave laws and many are now considering equitable part-time work and just-scheduling policies. But these policies are coming on line during an era in which government has been under attack and capacity has been weakened.
Very few of these new ordinances have robust enforcement mechanisms or adequate funding. This means that even if a state, county or city enacts an innovative labor policy, it is likely to be hitched to an inadequate enforcement regime.
If contemporary violation rates of minimum wage and overtime laws are any indication of what’s to come, we should be worried about this weak enforcement. A study published in 2014 by the Economic Policy Institute estimated that 300,000 workers — per state, per month — suffered minimum-wage violations, costing them about $50 billion dollars a year. These violations go largely unreported.
Those most vulnerable to wage theft — women, immigrants and people of color — don’t always know their rights, but even when they do, they are unlikely to come forward for fear of retaliation. Professor Janice Fine, CIWO Director of Research and Strategy, presented research at the July 18 meeting revealing that, unfortunately, most state and local labor enforcement systems are complaint-based, including those tied to the most recent policies. This means new policies are premised on a faulty assumption that vulnerable workers will come forward and make a complaint when they have a problem.
With support from Surdna and the Ford Foundation, Rutgers’ CIWO is playing a vital role nationally in conducting research, putting forth a set of ideas and working with key worker and community organizations and government agencies to engage in “co-enforcement.” This initiative studies and facilitates solutions to the problem of non-compliance with basic wage and hour laws including strategic enforcement, more effective complaint and investigatory practices, and co-enforcement with worker organizations. These partnerships focus on the worst sectors, tap organizations to bridge the trust and information gap between workers and law enforcement, and lead to the discovery of major cases of wage theft. Co-enforcement ensures that violations are identified, workers are protected from retaliation, claims are filed, and back wages are collected.