How Santa Clara County is Fighting Wage Theft

California fast food workers scored a historic victory this week when labor representatives and industry officials reached a deal on a $20 minimum wage. The agreement takes effect next year and will boost minimum pay by nearly $5 for 500,000 workers in California.     

But low pay isn’t the only inequity affecting food industry workers. Wage theft is also rampant. While the state has an agency to investigate wage theft claims, consequences for employers who break the law can be hard to come by.

Around 6,500 unpaid wage theft judgments remain open in California. Together, they total $85 million. That’s $85 million not in the pockets of the people who are owed. It also represents a loss to governments from missing payroll tax revenue.

The problem is a lack of resources. There are just 13 people employed to work these cases statewide. If all the positions were filled, there would still only be 22.

Worker advocates have begun urging local governments to pick up the slack. At least one county is listening. Santa Clara now has a Food Permit Wage Theft Enforcement Program. In addition to spreading awareness about employers’ obligations, the team goes after businesses that the state has identified as owing wages. First, the businesses receive a letter from the county. If they don’t respond within 45 days, the county can revoke their business permits.

According to KQED, the program has helped food workers recover $125,000 so far. With that success in mind, fair wage advocates hope other counties will follow Santa Clara’s lead.