Opinion: Pasadena – Too Cheap to Enforce the Minimum Wage?

Published : Saturday, January 30, 2016 | 12:17 PM

By a 4-0 vote Wednesday night, the City Council’s EDTech Committee forwarded the staff recommendation for a minimum wage to the full Council.

Pasadena now is on the verge of enacting Monday night a City minimum wage ordinance with a path to $15 per hour by 2020. But will the gradual minimum wage increase make a difference to the neediest Pasadena workers or will the Council will just make the City of Roses feel good about its liberal paternalism while not delivering the benefit to its poorest workers? The difference hangs on whether the City is too cheap to commit to having one Pasadena investigator.

Wage theft’s ravaging impact on the poorest workers is well-documented.

The UCLA Labor Center’s 2010 empirical study “Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles: The Failure of Labor and Employment Law for Low-Wage Workers” reports: “The various forms of nonpayment and underpayment of wages take a heavy monetary toll on workers and their families. L.A. respondents who experienced a pay-based violation in the previous work week lost an average of $39.81 out of average weekly earnings of $318.00, or 12.5 percent. Assuming a full-year work schedule, these workers lost an average of $2,070.00 annually due to workplace violations, out of total annual earnings of $16,536.00.”

Spend 5 minutes with Pablo Alvarado at the Pasadena Jobs Center at 500 North Lake and he’ll tell you from 1st-hand experience that what’s true for Los Angeles is true for Pasadena – i.e., that wage theft is rampant here and low wage workers who suffer wage theft more often get screwed than get any remedy.

Mr. Alvarado initially proposed that the City create a minimum wage and anti-wage-theft enforcement unit with 4 employees. When there was push-back that the City would never go for that cost, he compromised on getting at least 1 investigator position. But cold water was thrown on even that modest compromise when the staff report proposed outsourcing all enforcement through contracting with the County of Los Angeles for enforcement, Relying on only LA County enforcement is a recipe for weak enforcement.

The logistical problem alone for the working poor would be daunting if they have to go to a distant LA County site for enforcement. Practically every knowledgeable observer expects the County’s as-yet uncreated enforcement unit to be swamped because of the severity of the wage-theft problem in County jurisdictions, so Pasadena’s working poor risk being relegated by County enforcement to second-class victims. The budget argument for contracting-out to the County is either disingenuous or illusory or both. It is disingenuous if contracting-out is a way to insure weak enforcement; proponents of contracting-out should just come out in the open and say they’re not willing to pay for enforcement for the poor. If the argument for contracting-out is that County enforcement will be strong enforcement for Pasadena, the practical realities identified above belie that claim. If the claim is that County enforcement will be cheaper, the proponents are kidding themselves; the City is going to have to pay the County if it contracts out for effective enforcement. The bottom line is that some outsourcing to the County may be useful if a local Pasadena investigator can tap into its broader enforcement mechanisms, but total outsourcing is likely to be both less effective and equally or more costly than having a Pasadena investigator.

The Pasadena Job Center’s proposal for at least one investigator employed by Pasadena is worth fighting for. So far, Council Members Tyron Hampton and Steve Madison have been the strongest EDTech advocates for strong enforcement. While EDTech Chair Victor Gordo, EdTech Member Andy Wilson, and Mayor Terry Tornek have generally supported a minimum wage ordinance, they have not been as outspoken on enforcement. Our voices need to be heard at Monday night’s City Council meeting that Pasadena is not too cheap to pay for at least one City investigator. We need to insure that the new minimum wage doesn’t just make us feel good but actually delivers to los pobres de la tierra.

 

Dale Gronemeier and Skip Hickambottom are local civil rights attorneys.

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