New County Program Targets Wage Theft

Toni Sutton-Deangelico

Santa Clara County, CA (WorkersCompensation.com)- Millions of restaurant workers are affected by wage theft. However, these servers, food runners, hosts, and bartenders may not realize their employers have illegally withheld their wages. Wage theft in restaurants can include violating the law in place for tip pools, improperly deducting wages from employees, and failing to pay workers for overtime.

A new initiative in Santa Clara County gives officials the authority to suspend permits from a business that refuses to pay workers what they are owed.

Data from the state found that in 2015, Santa Clara County had the highest number of wage theft claims per capita in California. Also, a recent analysis found that based on 1,743 judgments filed between January 2015 and September 2019, retail food vendors in the County owe around $5 Million in back wages to workers. That prompted the county Board of Supervisors to create the new Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE).

“Our goal is not to take away food permits, but rather to help business owners come into compliance by paying their workers what they’ve actually earned,” said Betty Duong, manager of the OLSE.

County officials say the initiative is one of several efforts in place to support vulnerable employees, especially women, low-wage workers, and immigrants. Support and services will be available in seven different languages to involve more workers that are falling victim to wage theft.

Officials have started to enforce wage theft judgments in several communities and will be expanding it soon to the rest of the County.

“The OLSE will work with the offending party to ensure employee settlements are being fulfilled. If a party refuses to meet the financial obligations to its workers, the case will be referred to the Department of Environmental Health,” a spokesperson for the County of Santa Clara Department of Environmental Health, told WorkersCompensation.com. “Part of being a properly permitted food facility includes following all laws within Santa Clara County. At this point, the Department of Environmental Health would begin the process to suspend the operating permit, and the food facility will be closed down.

“Often the workers we are looking out for face financial or language barriers that prevent them from fighting for what they have rightfully earned,” the spokesperson continued. “The County of Santa Clara is committed to assisting those who need the most help. Collection attempts can drag on for years before restitution is made, if ever. This provides an immediate incentive for the offending party to work on a payment plan with the OLSE.”

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez noted in a media release, “We must give a voice to these employees. Helping them collect the wages they are owed, which they earned through hard, honest work and labor, is only one of many steps we are taking to protect their rights.”

Dave Cortese, also a Santa Clara County Supervisor, added, “Enforcing wage laws will benefit workers and level the playing field for law-abiding businesses paying their workers what they are due.”

A previous worker, Teresa Brillante, who was a victim of wage theft, told the media, “Everybody will have that courage to step up and voice their sentiments about their work. It can be intimidating and challenging to fight for our wages, even though it’s money that we earned and worked hard for.”

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