Opinion: Wage theft thrives in secrecy. Here’s how my office is working to stop it.

There is a quote attributed to the American publisher Joseph Pulitzer that sticks with me as a lawman: “There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.” The crime of withholding wages from workers that they have rightfully earned is no different. The theft can take many forms: failing to pay overtime, undercounting hours worked, paying less than the minimum wage, confiscating tips, taking illegal deductions from paychecks.

It’s a big problem. A 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute estimated that 2.4 million workers in the 10 most populous states lose $8 billion annually to minimum-wage violations. About a decade ago, the UCLA Labor Center interviewed nearly 2,000 workers here in Los Angeles County, including “interviews with unauthorized immigrants and other vulnerable workers who are often missed in standard surveys,” and estimated that employers in the county ripped off employees to the tune of more than $26 million weekly.

Wage theft can be perpetrated against employees at any income level, and it should be treated as a criminal offense, just as any other form of robbery would. But wage-theft victims are often some of the poorest people in the county and across the country — many of whom have been hailed for the past year as “essential workers.”

Protecting the wages of these workers is essential, too.

The wage-theft phenomenon doesn’t spur media interest the way high-profile burglaries or auto-theft rings do, and overburdened government agencies are slow to deal with it. Wage theft thus thrives in secrecy, with unscrupulous businesses regularly stealing from workers — and gaining a competitive advantage over their honest business competitors. For several months now, my leadership team has been meeting with labor and community advocates, as well as state officials, about how best to tackle wage theft in Los Angeles County. We met with authors of the UCLA study and with California Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower. I was shocked to learn that almost half the time, wage theft isn’t even reported — likely because workers are too intimidated by their employers, fearful of losing their jobs or wary of going to law enforcement.

Even worse, only 3 percent of back wages awarded in court judgments are ever collected. We’re talking about a multibillion-dollar crime in which the predators get to keep 97 percent of their illegal haul. That is why my office is launching a major wage-theft intervention program. We will publicize a toll-free number so that those who think they are victims of wage theft can speak to one of my deputies — who will have fresh training in taking wage-theft incident reports. We will then connect those workers with the appropriate agencies to file a wage dispute. We will also track and monitor the reports so we’ll know which employers have been accused, where they’re located and the industries involved. That will help build a profile of this stealthy activity and better equip us to deal with it. When appropriate, we will launch criminal investigations and file criminal charges. We are also launching a wage-theft recovery effort. I take some inspiration from Vice President Harris and her tenure as California attorney general, when she secured more than $1 million in 2012 from eight carwashes in the state that underpaid workers, created false records of hours worked, and denied them rest and meal breaks.

In Los Angeles County, there are 8,000 existing court judgments that workers have won against their employers for owed wages that haven’t been paid, totaling a mind-numbing $115 million. I have also instructed our “levy crew,” responsible for executing court orders and judgments, to collect as much of this staggering amount as they can this year and to make such collections a permanent part of their daily duties.

I hope this concerted effort to discourage wage theft in Los Angeles County will be emulated in other parts of the country. Too many employers have preyed for too long on low-wage workers who may feel powerless to seek justice.

Alex Villanueva is the 33rd Sheriff of Los Angeles County, California.

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