Maegan Ortiz

Maegan Ortiz

Next steps for Day Laborers and Household Workers in Los Angeles

By Megan Ortiz

The new minimum wage going into effect is exciting for the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA) and the nearly 1,000 day laborers and household workers that use one of our four worker centers in Los Angeles. But what we are more excited about is the opening of Wage Enforcement units in both the city and county. Before “wage theft” was became a buzzword for politicians, it was a painful reality that day laborers faced regularly. While the minimum rate for hiring workers out of a worker center has been 12 to 15 dollars an hour for some time now, guaranteeing a day’s pay for a day’s work has not always been easy.

Many employers think they can take advantage of immigrant workers. Coordinators at the day labor centers we operate have spent countless hours helping workers track down bad employers and mediating to ensure payment. A worker not getting paid one day could mean a day without food. A worker not getting paid for a week could mean not enough money to keep a roof over their head. And what most people don’t know is that this fight in Los Angeles started with day laborers because of the critical impact wage theft has on their day to day lives and the lives of their families. Having wage enforcement offices locally is a huge win but now comes the hard work.

Making the minimum wage a reality means the implementation of the ordinance needs to be robust and responsive to the needs of workers across industries. What works for protection, enforcement and collections in the garment industry looks different for carwash workers. An investigation into a restaurant not paying rest time will not have the same steps as an investigation of someone who hired a jornalero to redo their yard. What all of these industries have in common though is a reliance on immigrant labor. This is why, IDEPSCA, as part of the Los Angeles Coalition Against Wage Theft will be working with the city and county to make sure that as many workers and employers know about the ordinance and we will be monitoring how both the city and county are handling claims so that no one can claim ignorance and so that no one is fearful to file a claim.

That means there is still a long way to go. Besides making sure that implementation reaches across industries. Good implementation means full funding. Full funding means enough money for outreach in multiple languages, across multiple mediums. Full funding means enough investigators to make a dent in the over $26 million dollars that is stolen every week in Los Angeles. Full funding means community contracts with trusted organizations who have supporting workers fighting against wage theft and filing claims for years. Full funding means seeing wage enforcement as a critical piece of supporting day labor centers and fighting against homelessness, not a competing budget line item.

Looking beyond funding, there are additions that we need to see in wage enforcement on the city and county level if we really mean what we say when we say we need to protect and enforce the minimum wage, while collecting stolen wages. This means ensuring that anti-discrimination is built into existing policy. We know from working closely with our brothers and sisters from the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, that not even getting a job because of racism and yes, anti-blackness (yes, I said it) built into hiring practices, is one of the worse examples of wage theft.

We also know that many day laborers and household workers are wary to report wage theft and other labor violations because of their immigration status. The fear and threat of deportation is very real, especially in the wake of the recent Supreme Court (non) decision on DAPA and expanded DACA. This is why we need to work to make sure that immigrant workers who expose wage theft are granted protection under a U Visa provision. Wage theft is not a victimless crime. It does real harm to the worker and their family and no worker should be forced to keep quiet because of their legal status.

Yes, we are celebrating here in Los Angeles because this is our win. It has been a long road to get to a point where wage theft is recognized as a problem and policy is enacted to do something about it. But day laborers can’t eat policy. A nanny can’t put a roof over her children’s head with policy. Policy is only as good as its implementation and implementation is only as good as the community that monitors and continues to push. IDEPSCA and the Los Angeles Coalition Against Wage Theft is a pretty good community.

Maegan Ortiz is the Executive Director of the Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA) and steering committee member of the Los Angeles Coalition Against Wage Theft, a LIFT Fund Grantee. Ms. Ortiz has over 20 years of leadership, development and grassroots experience in nonprofit and community based organization and over 10 year as an independent journalist writing about Latino political issues including immigration policy.

* This blog post is part of the blog series Blogging our Victories: An L.A. Story, featuring LIFT Fund worker center grantees, labor and research partners.  Check out the LIFT’s webpage and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to see past and upcoming blogs by Victor Narro of the UCLA Labor Center, Flor Rodriguez, Director of CLEAN Carwash Campaign, Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi, Policy Director at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, among others. LIFT will also release a video featuring some of our esteemed bloggers and documenting their work towards this victory… stay tuned!