Imagine you’ve been fulfilling your end of the employer-employee bargain by getting to work on time and getting your job done. But then the owner starts assigning you extra hours without pay — you’ve got to work through lunch, say, or well beyond the end of your eight-hour shift. After a while you decide you’ve had enough, quit and file a complaint through the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to recover the unpaid wages. More than a year later — it’s a slow process — you win your case, but by then the company has gone out of business, leaving you with no ability to collect what’s due.
It’s remarkable how often that hypothetical scenario plays out. According to a UCLA Labor Center report last year, only 17% of California workers who won wage claims from 2008 to 2011 collected the money, primarily because the offending businesses had shut down before the cases were won. A measure in the Assembly would help workers recover those owed wages and, in its recently amended version, should do so without creating an undue burden on business.
AB 2416, by Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), gives workers the power to file a lien against an employer at the time the wage complaint is filed, which means that even if the business shuts down, the wronged worker will have a mechanism through which to force payment. That doesn’t preclude a business from being sold; the bill allows the owner to post a bond to satisfy the lien. Business owners are further protected from vengeful ex-workers by a clause that allows a judge to assess attorneys’ fees and court costs against employees if “false information was knowingly and in bad faith” included in the claim.
The California Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business groups oppose the measure, and they were right in their early conclusion that some parts of the proposed law would have been unfair. It originally allowed workers to place liens against the properties where they did the work, which meant a homeowner or landlord could be on the hook for wages unpaid by a contractor or tenant. But that was dropped. Also, an element was added to the bill letting business owners remove a lien if the worker files the claim and then disappears, or fails to remove the lien after losing the case.
All too often, shady business owners have used bankruptcy or the providential closure of the business to avoid paying employees what they’re owed. This would give workers a better shot at protecting their interests, without exposing more conscientious businesses to an onerous burden.