In summary

New research shows that almost 2 in 5 California workers have experienced a workplace violation, but few report it because they fear retaliation. Lawmakers could address those concerns by creating a retaliation fund, educating workers on their rights and reconsidering the “at will” employment model.

Guest Commentary written by

Alexandra Suh

Alexandra Suh

Alexandra Suh is co-chair of the California Coalition for Worker Power.

Forty-eight striking janitors were fired at Twitter recently, representing the latest backlash from massive corporations hellbent on undermining momentum for unionizing workers. 

Similar actions from Amazon and Starbucks have made headlines. But it’s not just billionaire bosses and Fortune 500 companies that intimidate and inflict economic pain on workers who speak up against abuse. New research shows how employer retaliation is too often the rule, rather than the exception.  

Elected officials have made deliberate policy choices that leave workers at risk when they stand up for fundamental labor rights and protections from wage theft, unsafe workplaces or sexual harassment. Even the toughest laws on paper don’t mean much if workers don’t feel safe coming forward to report rule-breaking, or unfunded agencies don’t have the resources to investigate. 

To build a strong economy and fight inequality, California’s new class of legislators need to change the imbalance of power that leaves workers vulnerable to retaliation. 

After surveying 1,000 working adults in California and conducting focus groups in six different languages, a new report from the National Employment Law Project illustrates the consequences of virtually unchecked employer power. 

Workers said they were being bullied into silence.  

Nearly 2 in 5 workers have experienced workplace violations, yet only 10% reported them to a government agency. Of those who took the risk of coming forward, more than half experienced some form of retaliation.

Workers said that if they were not worried about running out of money for rent and other basic needs, they would be far more likely to report workplace violations. Concerns about being fired or disciplined prevented more than 40% of workers from joining their colleagues to push for job improvements. 

An even greater share of Black and Latino workers – 55% and 46%, respectively – said the risks for speaking out were too high.

Deliberate policy choices created an economy where workers are too vulnerable, which means deliberate policy choices can fix the power imbalance. State leaders must prioritize actions this year to protect workers from retaliation. 

The creation of a retaliation fund would give workers the peace of mind – and the immediate economic support – they need to feel confident exercising their rights. A worker who reports a workplace violation to a state agency would be able to access quick, meaningful financial assistance if their employer retaliated against them.

California needs to fund education to help workers understand their rights, and give workers a meaningful chance to have their cases resolved once they’ve risked coming forward. While California’s anti-retaliation laws are tough on paper, employers know there is little consequence for breaking them because the agencies charged with enforcing workers’ rights are severely underfunded.   

The NELP report also makes it clear that it’s time to reconsider California’s “at will” employment model in favor of a “just cause” policy that protects workers from arbitrary and unfair firings. Employers should be required to show that there is a justifiable reason before firing a worker. 

These policies are overwhelmingly popular. Ninety-two percent of working Californians supported the creation of a retaliation hardship fund, the survey found, and 2 in 3 said having access to such a fund would make them more likely to report a labor violation to a government agency. Working Californians of all political parties – 81% – were in support of a law protecting workers from unfair and arbitrary firings.

Californians elected a new majority of pro-worker legislators. Now is the time to stand with them and tackle entrenched problems of wage theft and worker exploitation to finally address the imbalance of power.

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