Shelter from the storm - Page 2

San Francisco strengthens protections for low-wage workers as the economy worsens

A coalition of activists (pictured) and progressive supervisors successfully pushed for stronger protections against wage theft.

"You're talking about workers who are pretty vulnerable — not knowing the laws, not speaking the language. People who need a job and cannot afford to lose it are vulnerable to exploitation," Liu said.

While labor laws in San Francisco are uniquely strong, with mandatory paid sick leave and local minimum wage established at $9.92 per hour, "When it comes to implementation and enforcement, there's still a lot left to be desired," Liu said. As things stand, investigation of employer violations are predicated on worker complaints, and it can take years for a worker to get a hearing if they're owed back wages.

The Wage Theft Prevention Ordinance doubles the fines for employers who retaliate against workers who file complaints. It allows OLSE investigators to issue immediate citations if they detect a problem in a workplace. When an employer comes under investigation, it requires them to post a notice informing workers that they have a right to cooperate with investigators — and imposes a fine for failing to post the notice. It also establishes a one-year timeline in which cases brought to OSLE's attention must be resolved.

Under the new law, employers would also be required to provide contact information to their workers, an important change for day laborers who are sometimes taken to job sites where they perform manual labor, only to be dropped off later without payment and no way to get in touch with their temporary bosses.

"You have raised awareness about the crisis of wage theft," OLSE director Donna Levitt told workers at an Aug. 2 rally outside City Hall. "And we have made it clear that wage theft will not be tolerated in our city."

The ordinance was spearheaded by Sups. David Campos and Eric Mar, with Sups. Jane Kim, John Avalos, Ross Mirkarimi, and Board President David Chiu signing on as co-sponsors. Members of PWA met with supervisors to win their support, and even succeeded in bringing on board the influential Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

"The fact is that even though we have minimum wage laws in place, those laws are still being violated not only throughout the country, but here in San Francisco," Campos told the Guardian. "Wage theft is a crime, and we need to make sure that there is adequate enforcement — and that requires a change in the law so that we provide [OLSE] more tools and more power to make sure that the rights of workers are protected."

Victoria Aquino, 66, spent several years working 16-hour hours without minimum wage or overtime pay as the sole live-in caregiver for six disabled patients at a San Francisco care center. Her duties included feeding patients, bathing them, changing diapers, and cleaning.

"The patients would knock to wake me up and ask me for cigarettes or food in the middle of the night," she recounted, "and I wasn't paid for that." She first complained to OLSE after one of the patients physically attacked her, leaving her black and blue with a permanently injured finger, and later sought the help of the Filipino Community Center to file a claim demanding back wages. It took months, but her employer eventually settled, agreeing to pay $60,000 in back wages and reduce her shifts to eight hours a day.

Aquino said she became involved with the Filipino Community Center because "there are a lot of caregivers still suffering, and more than I suffered — especially those who don't know the laws. I sympathize for them. It hurts me when I hear some caregivers who are no longer supposed to work. They're past their 70s, and they're still working."