Berkeley restaurants

Despite a record budget surplus, California is unlikely to fix massive backlogs in wage theft claims anytime soon

The number of Californians directly affected by long wait times could be much higher, as multiple employees often jointly file a claim against an employer. The delays, which have worsened during the pandemic, can make it harder for workers to collect owed wages and fuel an environment of impunity, say labor enforcement experts and worker advocates.

María, a restaurant worker, has been waiting nearly four years for a decision on her claim for $35,000 in unpaid wages. KQED is withholding her full name as she fears it will hurt her case.

In the more than a decade she washed dishes and cleaned at a Berkeley restaurant, María often worked overtime, she said. But her employer did not compensate her for those hours, or give her meal and rest breaks or paid sick leave, as required by law, according to her complaint filed in July 2018.

Meanwhile, the 50-year-old single mother of four from Mexico said she needed an urgent solution to her case, noting she had fallen behind on rent and feared her family will soon be evicted from her apartment.

“It’s very difficult for me to support my family and meet all our expenses and bills,” María said in Spanish. “It took too many years. As workers, we have rights and we need the authorities to solve this problem and do their job properly.

Why is the wait so long

Many cases reach settlement early in the labor commissioner’s wage claims process, a process originally designed as a faster, free alternative to filing a lawsuit in state court. But disputes that remain unresolved go to a hearing, a trial-like event that aims to provide due process for employers and workers.

By law, the Commissioner of Labor, also known as the Labor Standards Enforcement Division, must hold hearings within 120 days of the date the complaint is filed. Still, California workers are forced to wait an average of 808 days, or more than two years, for a hearing to resolve their case, according to agency data. The worst delays, averaging more than three years, occur at the Oakland branch, where María submitted her claim.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees the Office of the Labor Commissioner, said the number of pending applications could include cases where the status has not been updated because the agency has started to use a new IT management system in 2016. But she did not explain why these errors have not yet been fixed, or how many cases still listed as pending may in fact have been closed.

Nearly 24,000 complaints have been filed on average per year since 2015.

In a statement, Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower acknowledged that the wait times for wage claims and citation hearings were “unacceptable.”

“While the issue of backlogs is not new, I am committed to doing everything in my power to reduce the time workers who are victims of wage theft have to wait for justice,” she wrote. . “My office is working tirelessly to improve existing backlogs that have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Understaffing is a big problem at the agency, which has scheduled more than 29,000 wage claims hearings from 2019 to 2021. Hearing officers must review evidence and make a final decision on individual worker complaints , as well as employer calls on hundreds of citations issued by the agency. Millions of dollars in fines and back wages are often at stake in these more complex cases, which can affect hundreds of employees at a time and require hearings that last several days.

But currently, the Office of the Labor Commissioner has only 64 hearing officer positions, and not all of them are filled.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office has proposed adding just six additional hearing officers and 17 other staff to support the statewide wage claims process for the next fiscal year, which begins in July. This is partly due to the increased workload the agency expects to have, resulting from new laws expanding its enforcement power.

Worker advocates have applauded the expansion, but warn that many more hearing officers are needed to deal with the huge backlog in a timely manner.

“Given the numbers we’re talking about, I’m not convinced this will make a significant dent” for workers, said Shane Gusman, who heads the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council. Gusman has been pushing Sacramento for improvements at labor enforcement agencies, which he says have always been cash-starved.

“Even though there was a growth in personnel and resources, they never caught up,” Gusman said. “You could double the budget of the Office of the Commissioner of Labor, and they would still be underfunded.”

In fact, Newsom’s office has proposed cutting the agency’s relatively modest budget of about $155 million by 6% over the next fiscal year, including a cut of almost $1 million for its wage claims arbitration unit, according to state Department of Finance records. . The overall budget reduction is due to the expiration of one-time funds for pilots and other divisional projects, finance officials said.

Vacancies fueled by a catch-22

Officials from the commissioner of labor and its parent agency, the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), may request more funds from the budget being negotiated in Sacramento to hire additional hearing officers, as they have done the previous years. But any significant increase is unlikely to be approved by Newsom’s office and the Legislative Assembly, given the DIR’s already high 25% vacancy rate, a discrepancy lawmakers mentioned during a budget hearing in february.

“We wouldn’t necessarily give them more money if they had all these vacancies for the positions they’re currently in,” said San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting, who chairs the budget committee. the State Assembly.

“We have more money, more resources. We could definitely help,” Ting said, referring to the state’s abundant surplus. “But all we can do is keep pushing them to hire these [vacancies] as soon as possible, let them know as soon as possible so they can start processing these requests. »

Ting, who worked for a nonprofit that represents low-income workers in wage theft cases, said the budget committee would consider holding another watchdog hearing on the longstanding job vacancies issue. in autumn.