Study: Exploited San Francisco Workers are "Suffering Silently"

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (September 2, 2020) – Thousands of San Francisco’s most vulnerable workers are not filing complaints when they are paid below the minimum wage, according to a new study by the Rutgers University Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO). The domestic workers who cook, clean, and care for children and seniors in private households endured the largest number of estimated minimum wage violations over a 13-year period, but only a tiny percentage of the victims came forward.

“San Franciscans rely on thousands of minimum wage workers to care for their children and elders, to clean their homes, offices, and hospitals, and to prepare the food they eat,” said Janice Fine, a professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and director of research and strategy for Rutgers CIWO. “Unfortunately, this study shows that many of these workers are falling victim to business models that rely on exploitation. Unless we proactively target the sectors where wage theft is happening, it may continue indefinitely.”

The San Francisco Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement (OLSE) is a national leader in complaint-based enforcement, collecting $13.4 million in back wages and penalties on behalf of nearly 7,000 workers in fiscal year 2018-19. But many exploited workers are too afraid to file a complaint. Rutgers CIWO researchers analyzed federal and city data for the years 2005-18 to estimate how many minimum wage violations went unreported. They found:

  • More than half of domestic workers were likely victims of wage theft, but most never came forward. For every 10,000 workers in private households, there were 5,098 estimated minimum wage violations and only 4 complaints filed.
  • Wage theft affected an estimated 49% of childcare workers, 29% of maids and housekeeping cleaners, and 22% of personal and home care aides.
  • Bars and restaurants logged the most complaints, but the vast majority of their exploited workers did not come forward.
  • There were 2,392 estimated minimum wage violations, but only 80 complaints, for every 10,000 bakers, bartenders, chefs, cooks, dishwashers, food prep workers, and servers working in the food services and drinking places industry.
  • Industries that tend to employ women and immigrants had the largest number of unreported violations.
  • The broadcasting and publishing industries, excluding Internet-based media, had the lowest estimated violation rates.

“Ideally, high-violation industries will have high complaint rates and low-violation industries will have low complaint rates,” said Daniel Galvin, a Rutgers CIWO fellow and associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. “That does happen in some industries. But in others, like private households, we estimate extremely high violation rates but the enforcement agency receives very few complaints. That means these workers – who are predominantly women, people of color, and immigrants – are suffering silently.”

The study recommends implementation of a strategic enforcement model, which directs resources to industries where the problems are largest, where workers are least likely to exercise their legal rights, and where the agency can impact industrywide compliance. As the first local office of labor standards enforcement in the nation as well as the first to formalize its work with worker centers, community organizations and legal advocates, OLSE is well-positioned to be the first municipal agency in the U.S. to embrace this model.

“This study demonstrates that the premise for a complaint-based enforcement model—that workers whose rights are violated will speak up—is faulty,” said Jenn Round, a Rutgers CIWO fellow and labor standards law expert. “By using the study’s findings as the foundation from which to build a strategic enforcement program, San Francisco can bridge the enforcement gap to better ensure it is protecting the rights of its most vulnerable workers.”

Press Contact
Steve Flamisch
Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations
848.252.9011 (cell)
steve.flamisch@smlr.rutgers.edu

About the School
The Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) is the world’s leading source of expertise on managing and representing workers, designing effective organizations, and building strong employment relationships. SMLR’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization is a “think and do tank” that seeks to shift the balance of power toward greater economic and social equality.

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