By Johnny Magdaleno.
Last year, at the start of spring, 21 construction workers were hired by a local contractor to hang drywall for a 79-unit apartment complex in downtown Berkeley, California. The workers spent five months on the project, but when they finally wrapped it up, they still hadn’t received a dime from their employer.
They filed complaints with their local trade unions, which were able to pass the message up to the Labor Enforcement Task Force and Joint Enforcement Strike Force, two coalitions of state and municipal agencies that have appraised $4.2 million worth of unpaid wages in California since 2012. Their investigation led California Labor Commissioner Julie Su to place a lien on the contractor for $60,000, the total amount the workers were owed, three months after they left the job site.
For Todd Stenhouse, a spokesperson for the wage advocacy nonprofit Smart Cities Prevail, the state’s response marks a turn for the best in what might have been a tragic finish for those workers. But successes like this represent a drop in the bucket when it comes to the hunt for unscrupulous contractors.
“While there’s a process in place at the state level, the unfortunate reality is that only a fraction of [wage theft] incidences result in claims, and of those that result in claims and judgments, only a fraction are actually paid,” says Stenhouse. Just 30 percent of the $4.2 million accounted for by California’s task forces has been collected and paid out to workers.