In summary

Cynthia Rice, California Rural Legal Assistance: California’s Private Attorney General Act has helped Peruvian sheepherders, dairy workers, janitors and the state itself. Here’s how.

By Cynthia Rice, Special to CalMatters

Cynthia L. Rice is a former board member of the California Employment Lawyers Association and is director of litigation, advocacy & training for California Rural Legal Assistance, crice@crla.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

Have you ever had a job where you didn’t know the name of your employer or where to go if you didn’t get your check? 

Ever had to work on your feet for 10 hours because your boss figured it was cheaper not to provide seats? 

Ever get a paycheck that was $100 less than you expected because you were charged for tools needed for work? 

Ever work in a field for six straight hours in 90-degree heat with no breaks, no shade, no restroom?

These are everyday occurrences for the low wage workers who bring lawsuits under the Private Attorneys General Act, also known as PAGA, a law whose impact is examined in a new report issued by a coalition including the UCLA Labor Center

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These are the PAGA cases that employers and organizations such as the California Chamber of Commerce decry as “job killers” or “bounty hunter” cases. In reality, individual workers who pursue these cases seek not only the wages and penalties they are owed, but penalties owed to other workers and the state of California.

The Private Attorneys General Act law was passed to address documented widespread worker exploitation. The California Legislature recognized that the state had, and still has, limited resources to enforce critical labor law protections. 

Enforcement was expanded by allowing workers who had suffered violations to bring a lawsuit on their own behalf, and others, to enforce the penalties owed by employers who violate these laws. The UCLA Labor Center report demonstrates the effectiveness of the law and profiles worker abuses. 

Here are a few more:

  • Peruvian sheepherders in El Centro were brought in under the H-2A program to work at the lower monthly minimum wage provided for that job. 

Once here, they were put to work part of the year in a haying operation, working 10 to 12 hours, but never paid the minimum wage or overtime owed to them for the non-sheepherding work. The employer felt “safe” from lawsuits because the herders could only work for him under their visa, and had to return to Peru if they stopped working. 

When plaintiff Ronal Vilcapoma was told he could either file a Labor Commissioner claim for himself, and get his money in several months, or bring a lawsuit, which would take years but recover wages and penalties for other workers, he chose to help his fellow workers and make sure that others would not suffer the same treatment. His lawsuit put from $500 to $18,000 in workers’ pockets and sent thousands to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

  • Dairy workers represented by California Rural Legal Assistance, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and private attorneys recovered millions of dollars in underpaid wages and penalties for thousands of workers in that industry.

Private Attorneys General Act actions were brought against dozens of dairy farms that paid a flat salary with no compensation for overtime, gave no breaks, kept no time records, and made workers buy their own protective gear.

  • Thousands of lettuce and strawberry workers required to report for pickup and transport to work, but not paid for that time have benefitted from lawsuits in the Salinas, Santa Maria, and Imperial Valleys, recovering millions.

Cases by janitors, workers in hotels, restaurants, nurseries, nursing homes and every low-wage job imaginable have been successfully brought under the Private Attorneys General Act statute with comparable results.

Plaintiffs waited years instead of months for their wages and penalties so that the others in their workplace could benefit. These recoveries are not windfalls. They are enforcement actions that offset the economic advantage law-breaking employers gain over law-abiding employers.

But the ultimate, unheralded impact of these cases is the effect on the sued employers and the industries they profit from.  

In case after case, plaintiffs return to report that the sued employer and other employers in the area have changed and are now giving breaks, paying for travel time,  providing seats or shade or restrooms and paying all the wages owed without illegal deductions.  

The statute is working, compliance is increasing, and workers and the state are benefiting. 

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Cynthia L. Rice is a former board member of the California Employment Lawyers Association and is director of litigation, advocacy & training for California Rural Legal Assistance, crice@crla.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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