Will L.A. work to end wage theft?

The City Coun­cil has ap­proved $500,000, enough for only five in­ves­ti­ga­tors, for the next fis­cal year.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - DAVID ZAHNISER david.zahniser@la­times.com

In Los An­ge­les, it’s hard to miss the signs of a city strain­ing to meet its ex­ist­ing du­ties: bro­ken pave­ment, il­le­gally dumped fur­ni­ture, rows of tents un­der free­way bridges.

It took a dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suit to per­suade the city’s lead­ers to start re­pair­ing side­walks in a ma­jor way. Of­fi­cials have just started to ac­knowl­edge that trash re­moval from city streets is a big prob­lem. And from the lat­est es­ti­mates, home­less­ness and the num­ber of out­door en­camp­ments are on the rise.

Now L.A. City Coun­cil mem­bers are poised to cre­ate a new of­fice to en­force lo­cal wage laws, part of a larger push to re­quire a $15-per-hour min­i­mum wage by 2020. How much that of­fice will cost, and whether it will ex­pe­ri­ence the same fund­ing woes that have be­fallen other city agen­cies, is an un­re­solved ques­tion.

A UC Berke­ley re­search team told the coun­cil that its new Wage En­force­ment Di­vi­sion would need 25 in­ves­ti­ga­tors to match the ef­forts of San Fran­cisco, which it views as hav­ing the best-de­vel­oped pro­gram on en­force­ment. That would leave L.A. with one in­ves­ti­ga­tor for ev­ery 20,000 lowwage work­ers by the time the min­i­mum wage reaches $15 an hour, the team said.

What the coun­cil ap­proved, for the time be­ing at least, is $500,000 — enough for five an­a­lyst po­si­tions for the fis­cal year that starts July 1.

For some, that’s not enough to en­sure the city gets off to a strong start in en­forc­ing laws on wages, over­time, re­tal­i­a­tion and other com­pen­sa­tion is­sues.

“They ap­proved what’s ba­si­cally a third of the need,” said Elena Popp, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Evic­tion De­fense Net­work, a backer of the re­cent wage hike. “We need en­force­ment now. There’s wage theft now.”

Coun­cil mem­bers say they will have time to ramp up staffing as the wage in­creases start to take ef­fect. Law­mak­ers are hop­ing to give the of­fice at least an ad­di­tional $200,000 by 2016, the year the first wage in­crease — $10.50 per hour — is in place. Ad­vo­cates of the higher wage say more money is needed both for added en­force­ment ef­forts and to hire com­mu­nity groups to reach out to low-wage work­ers, par­tic­u­larly those who do not speak English.

Mean­while, crit­ics ques­tion whether the city should take on ad­di­tional over­sight du­ties when it is strug­gling to get com­pli­ance with other laws. “The city will read­ily tell you they al­ready don’t have enough per­son­nel to en­force their build­ing and safety reg­u­la­tions,” said Richard Close, pres­i­dent of the Sher­man Oaks Home- own­ers Assn.

Neigh­bor­hood groups al­ready com­plain the city fails to con­firm that real es­tate firms fol­low through on the prom­ises they make when their devel­op­ment projects are ap­proved. And Den­nis Hathaway, pres­i­dent of the Coali­tion to Ban Bill­board Blight, said the city’s record of pun­ish­ing com­pa­nies with il­le­gal out­door ad­ver­tis­ing is “abysmal.”

The city cur­rently has two in­spec­tors to pa­trol more than 5,700 ex­ist­ing “off-site” signs, such as bill­boards and su­per­graph­ics, which must be checked ev­ery other year. If those two in­spec­tors work 40-hour weeks, with no sick days and two weeks of va­ca­tion each year, they would need to in­spect 1.4 bill­boards ev­ery hour of ev­ery work day.

That leaves lit­tle time to crack down on un­per­mit­ted signs pop­ping up in Hol­ly­wood, the Westside and else­where, Hathaway said. “I don’t think it’s a mat­ter of not want­ing to do it. I think it’s a mat­ter of not hav­ing the per­son­nel to do it,” he said.

Build­ing and Safety spokesman Luke Zam­perini said his agency has “an ad­e­quate num­ber” of sign in­spec­tors. But he agreed that his depart­ment has too few in­spec­tors to tackle code vi­o­la­tions, such as un­per­mit­ted con­struc­tion, garage con­ver­sions, trash­filled yards and nui­sances cre­ated by hoard­ers in and out­side of their homes. “There is sim­ply not enough fund­ing,” he said.

En­force­ment prob­lems haven’t been con­fined to build­ing safety. Larry Gross, who sits on the com­mis­sion that over­sees the Depart­ment of An­i­mal Ser­vices, said there have been days when the San Fer­nando Val­ley — which makes up roughly 40% of the city’s pop­u­la­tion — had only one an­i­mal con­trol of­fi­cer. Those of­fi­cers are charged with han­dling re­ports of an­i­mal abuse, bark­ing dogs and other vi­o­la­tions.

Af­ter years of ne­glect, the city ap­proved enough money this year to hire an ad­di­tional 24 an­i­mal con­trol of­fi­cers. But other agen­cies are fac­ing bud­get dilem­mas.

The Ethics Com­mis­sion, which en­forces cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion laws, has five peo­ple — three in­ves­ti­ga­tors and two man­agers — to look into ma­jor vi­o­la­tions by politi­cians, cam­paign con­sul­tants, city con­trac­tors, lob­by­ists and donors. In the 2013 city elec­tion, there were 60,756 sep­a­rate cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions.

En­force­ment also is ex­pected to be an is­sue when the City Coun­cil takes up a pro­posal to le­gal­ize street vend­ing later this year. Coun­cil mem­bers are hop­ing to cre­ate a reg­u­la­tory sys­tem that would al­low ven­dors to ob­tain per­mits to sell on public side­walks. But of­fi­cials es­ti­mate there are as many as 50,000 ven­dors on the streets and more staff would prob­a­bly be needed to en­sure the new rules are fol­lowed.

The least-ex­pen­sive op­tion would be to hire five in­ves­ti­ga­tors at a cost of $500,000, roughly one staffer for ev­ery 10,000 ven­dors, city an­a­lysts re­ported re­cently. Un­der that ap­proach, en­force­ment would only be trig­gered by com­plaints. To have ac­tive pa­trols look­ing for il­le­gal ven­dors, the city would need to spend $1.7 mil­lion an­nu­ally for 17 staff mem­bers, of­fi­cials said.

On the is­sue of wage theft, the coun­cil’s new en­force­ment of­fice would have the power to in­ter­view work­ers and sub­poena pay­roll records. Busi­nesses would be re­quired to post in­for­ma­tion on L.A.’s wage law in 12 lan­guages, in­clud­ing Ta­ga­log, Ar­me­nian, Farsi and Chi­nese — both Can­tonese and Man­darin. Em­ploy­ers would face fines if they fail to give in­ves­ti­ga­tors ac­cess to pay­roll doc­u­ments and their work­ers.

Some ad­vo­cates for the min­i­mum wage hike have been diplo­matic in their com­ments on the early en­force­ment plan. Alexan­dra Suh, who heads the Kore­atown Im­mi­grant Work­ers Al­liance and is part of the Raise the Wage Coali­tion, said five em­ploy­ees is a “good start.” But at least 15 more staffers will be needed to make the of­fice ef­fec­tive, she said.

Coun­cil­man Paul Koretz, who pushed for the cre­ation of the wage theft of­fice, said there is still time to de­ter­mine how many staffers will be needed. He pre­dicted at least five more em­ploy­ees will be hired dur­ing the com­ing bud­get year.

“We need to staff up to the point where we are nail­ing ev­ery sin­gle per­son … that’s vi­o­lat­ing the law and steal­ing from their em­ploy­ees,” he said.

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

DAVID LAZO, 5, holds a dollar bill with his fa­ther, Fran­cisco, right, as they watch the City Coun­cil vote on June 3 to raise the city’s min­i­mum wage. Re­searchers say the city would need 25 wage theft in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

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