The story of how San Francisco dim sum restaurant Yank Sing’s workers won $4 million in back pay in2014 is a best-case scenario for low-wage workers who experience wage theft: strong worker protectionlaws, workers who dared to speak up, trusted community groups ready to spring into action on behalf ofworkers, motivated local and state agencies that exist to enforce these laws, and an employer whoagreed to do the right thing when confronted with the violations.
(Photo credit: Perfect San Francisco)
There is a growing movement around the country to raise the minimum wage in states and cities. Of the22 cities that have passed minimum wage laws, 10 are in California. San Francisco passed its firstminimum wage ordinance in 2003, and just last year its voters approved a plan to reach a $15/hourwage in 2018. Crucially, the ordinance contains financial penalties for employers that violate the law,and equally crucially, the law contains a provision for a community-based outreach program to ensurethat trusted community organizations will help to reach the most workers and encourage enforcementof the law.
San Francisco’s labor protections are among the strongest in country; importantly, it has an agencydedicated to enforcing those laws. And yet many workers continue to experience wage theft. Wagetheft refers to circumstances when employers do not pay their workers the minimum wage or overtimepay, do not allow required meal and rest breaks, or force off-the-clock work without pay. Workers mayknow they are not being paid enough, or not paid for all their time worked, but often fear retaliationfrom their employer should they try to assert their rights.
The Yank Sing settlement is a good example of the promise and purpose of state and local wage laws,thanks in large part to the workers’ bravery in standing up to their employer, the participation ofcommunity groups the Chinese Progressive Association and the Asian Law Caucus, and the commitmentof local and state enforcement agencies. The settlement addressed claims brought under San Francisco’s minimum wage and paid sick leave ordinances, as well as a number of state claims, including overtime violations (Cal. Lab. Code § 510), failure to pay wages (Cal. Lab. Code § 203), and meal and rest period violations (Cal. Lab. Code § 226.7).
In an encouraging sign, the restaurant owners cooperated, and went beyond simply paying what theyowed their workers; they also agreed to health care benefits for full-time employees and holiday andvacation pay, among other features of the settlement. These outcomes are rightly being celebratedhere, but we should remember that for many other low-wage workers, the road may be bumpier andthe outcome less satisfying.
We know that employer noncompliance with existing wage laws is alarmingly high, especially in low-wage industries. These facts remind us that the passage of higher minimum wage laws is just thenecessary first step to improving workers’ economic prospects. Next step: robust and effectiveenforcement.