Waiting for wages, three years later
Picture this: You go to work every day at a car wash. You don’t get paid for all your work. The state of California investigates your employer and announces a fine of more than $2.3 million for wage theft violations and penalties. Three years pass. You still have yet to receive a dime of the money you’re owed.
That’s what Antonio Dominguez and 63 of his colleagues experienced while working at the Playa Vista Car Wash in Culver City, according to a 2019 investigation from the California Labor Commissioner’s office. State regulators found that workers were sometimes told to wait in an alley for hours before being sent home without pay; that overtime pay was frequently withheld; and that managers regularly altered workers’ time cards to reduce their paid hours.
- Dominguez, an immigrant from Mexico: “I would tell myself that in this country I was nobody.”
- He added: “If you lose a day, you have to make it up some other way. There isn’t an option of being without work.”
Although California has some of the toughest labor laws in the country, the state’s enforcement of wage theft laws remains an exercise in frustration for workers and businesses alike, CalMatters’ Alejandro Lazo and Lil Kalish found while reporting their first in a round of stories for the California Divide team‘s new series, “Unpaid Wages: A Waiting Game.”
Consider the following:
- California workers last year filed nearly 19,000 individual stolen wage claims totaling more than $338 million. Thousands of cases are still pending.
- And, while many claims were settled, the average claim filed last year that reached a decision did so after 334 days — well past the 135-day limit set by law.
“While the timeline for investigations can be lengthy, improvements in our laws have given the Labor Commissioner’s office … new tools to assist workers in recovering stolen wages,” spokesperson Erika Monterroza said, adding that the office has hired nearly 300 employees since January 2021.
Monterroza did not comment on the Playa Vista car wash case. But last week, California’s labor commissioner said the state had reached a settlement agreement in principle for the citation with Hooman Nissani, the car wash owner.
Nissani, in his appeal of the citation, said the state’s investigator coaxed workers to sign “untruthful statements” and that the state’s fines and wage assumptions were “grossly inflated” and “riddled with erroneous unfounded assumptions.”
One influential lawmaker said the state should beef up its enforcement of labor laws in the car wash industry.
- Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a San Jose Democrat who leads his house’s Committee on Labor and Employment: “We need more resources and more accountability, particularly in industries like the car wash industry.”
- Chris Buscaglia, a former board member of the Western Carwash Association: “The good actors are paying for the bad actors. We get the bad rap; we pay all the money. It’s a thorn in our side.”
The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 10,211,889 confirmed cases (+0.4% from previous day) and 93,843 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 Updates on key bills
With the legislative session drawing to a close in less than a week, state lawmakers on Wednesday churned through hundreds more bills — though many of the most controversial ones have yet to come up. Here’s a look at some key takeaways:
- Last call in California will remain at 2 a.m. after Democratic and Republican legislators shot down a proposal that would have allowed bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other establishments in West Hollywood, Palm Springs and the city and county of San Francisco to serve alcohol as late as 4 a.m. Although the bill’s authors, Democratic Assemblymember Matt Haney and state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, pitched it as a way to help struggling small businesses recover from the pandemic, opponents worried it would cause an uptick in crime, drunk driving and deaths. “I promise you there will be death, needless death, if we pass this bill,” said Republican Assemblymember Tom Lackey of Palmdale. In a statement, Haney and Wiener said they were “disappointed” the bill failed “after a series of misleading speeches by members representing areas that would not have been impacted by the bill,” and added they’re still “assessing whether there is a path to pass the bill off the Assembly floor.”
- Gov. Gavin Newsom will get another chance to decide whether to make California’s paid family leave program more affordable for low-wage workers after he vetoed a similar measure last year, citing “significant new costs.” Under the current program, which also includes disability benefits, California’s lowest-earning workers — those making less than roughly $27,000 a year — who take time off to care for a new child or sick family member receive 70% of their wages, while all other workers get 60%. The bill lawmakers sent to Newsom’s desk would raise the payments for lowest earners to 90% of their wages and to 70% for all other workers by increasing contributions from the paychecks of the state’s highest earners, CalMatters’ Jeanne Kuang reports. Advocates noted that if Newsom doesn’t sign the bill, the current wage replacement rates — which are temporary under state law — will return to 55% of wages in January.
- Draft bill language was unveiled to codify one of Newsom’s last-minute climate proposals to create a buffer of at least 3,200 feet between new oil and gas production wells and homes, schools and parks, and to establish additional environmental controls for existing wells within the buffer zone. (Several other Newsom climate proposals found their way into print earlier this week.)
- And lawmakers resurrected a bill to reform California’s cash bail system by requiring state courts to take into account a defendant’s ability to pay when setting bail. The bill had lain dormant ever since last September, when lawmakers tabled it after a man released on zero bail allegedly raped and murdered a Sacramento woman, killed her dogs and set her house on fire. “Coddling criminals only creates more victims,” Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita said in a statement, citing a recent report from the Yolo County district attorney’s office that found 70% of offenders released on zero bail were later re-arrested. “The numbers don’t lie, and it is obvious zero bail is a fail for the public’s safety.”
2 State to vote on gas car ban
Today, California air regulators are set to vote on a far-reaching proposal to ban the sale of all new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035. Newsom, who in 2020 directed the California Air Resources Board to develop regulations to achieve that goal, tweeted a New York Times article on Wednesday that described the proposal “as one of the world’s most important climate change policies.”
But, as CalMatters’ Nadia Lopez has reported, the mandate — which would need to be greenlighted by the federal government in order to take effect — has sparked serious questions and concerns among air board members, environmental justice advocates and industry representatives alike, especially when it comes to the feasibility of producing, buying and charging vast quantities of electric cars. In a Wednesday press conference, the air board previewed proposed changes to address some of those concerns, including stronger battery durability requirements and enhanced incentives for manufacturers to offer cheaper electric vehicles so more low-income Californians can afford them. But significant uncertainty and pushback remains:
- John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, told Nadia in a statement: “Whether or not these requirements are realistic or achievable is directly linked to external factors like inflation, charging and fuel infrastructure, supply chains, labor, critical mineral availability and pricing, and the ongoing semiconductor shortage. These are complex, intertwined and global issues well beyond the control of either (the air resources board) or the auto industry.”
- The Environmental Working Group, which is pushing California to expand rooftop solar programs, said in a statement: “One of the most pressing challenges the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom and future leaders will face is making sure there is enough power to charge all the new electric automobiles that will fill driveways, garages and parking lots throughout the most populous state in the country.”
- Scott Hochberg, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said in a statement: “This rule needed to match the urgency of the climate crisis and instead leaves Californians making sputtering progress in the slow lane. California needs to … shift to (electric vehicles) much sooner or watch our climate stability slip away.”
3 State launches another investigation into Kaiser
California health regulators have opened a “targeted enforcement investigation” into Kaiser Permanente to determine whether it’s providing timely access to behavioral health appointments while thousands of its mental health workers are on strike, Rachel Arrezola, deputy director of communications and planning for the California Department of Managed Health Care, confirmed in a Wednesday statement to CalMatters mental health reporter Jocelyn Wiener. The department “is concerned about the potential for immediate harm to enrollees based on the very serious nature of allegations that the plan is not providing timely appointments to enrollees required by the law,” Arrezola said. (Separate from the strike, California health authorities are also investigating whether Kaiser is providing adequate and timely mental health coverage in general.)
The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the 2,000 Kaiser mental health employees who have been striking for more than week, had previously filed a complaint with the state alleging that Kaiser was canceling thousands of behavioral health appointments and failing to provide patients with alternatives in violation of state law. Sal Rosselli, the union’s president, said in a Wednesday statement that even stronger state action is needed: “Rapid intervention to protect patients who are having their appointments canceled and their care denied is required. Enforcement of the laws on the books, designed to protect the rights of patients, is overdue.”
Deb Catsavas, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said in a statement last week that the union’s “decision to strike is intended to hurt Kaiser Permanente’s ability to meet the needs of our patients: that is the point of the strike.”
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Democrats are targeting five Republican-held congressional seats in California this year in an attempt to save their House majority.
Leave groundwater management to local experts: State lawmakers should reject a bill to drop well-permitting decisions in the lap of politically appointed representatives with little, if any, expertise in groundwater management and even less local community knowledge, argues Louise Lampara, executive director of the Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business.
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