In California, Even Workers Who Prove Wage Theft Don’t Get Their Money

Wage theft isn’t just rampant in America’s most populous state, according to a new report. It’s also nearly impossible for California workers to fight, because even those cheated employees who take the time and risk to pursue their legal rights and win a judgment from the state government rarely receive the pay they’re owed.

Workers recovered less than half of the $390 million employers withheld from employees from 2008–2011 — by failing to pay overtime, requiring off-the-clock work, or paying less than the minimum wage from 2008 to 2011, according to the National Employment Law Project/UCLA study.

And that’s not even the really shocking number. Among workers who actually pursued and won a wage theft claim before the state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), 83 percent still never got their money. Six of every 10 California businesses found liable for wage theft simply evaporate, choosing to “suspend, forfeit, cancel, or dissolve their businesses, making it more difficult for employees to collect the wages they are owed,” a press release on the study said. Out of the total amount of unpaid wages the DLSE mandated be repaid in the three-year window — $282 million — just 15 percent ever actually got paid out.

Behind the numbers, of course, are human stories. A janitor the report identifies only as L.C. won a judgment from the state that she was owed $12,000. She’s never gotten the money, despite that ruling. “I had to go and find help, asking people to lend me money to cover my rent and bills. There were even days where I had nothing to eat,” L.C. said. “We are constantly told that workers have rights…but it seems that employers have the upper hand in these situations.”


The UCLA/NELP study says it is the first to detail how companies evade the legal structures that exist for worker recourse, but the problem of wage theft itself is widespread. According to past surveys, wage theft is surprisingly widespread in low-wage occupations. More than four out of five fast food workers in New York City say they’ve been victims of such abuse in the past year. Nationwide, wage theft court complaints are up 400 percent since 2000. The abuses have helped spark a wave of low-wage worker activism, including strikes and walkouts, in more than half a dozen major U.S. cities this year.