Legal Strategies

WJC press conference 4 2010 007-5

Companies that refuse to pay employees for work performed impose significant economic burdens on low-wage workers and our entire society. The Wage Justice Center was officially launched in September 2007 with seed funding from Echoing Green to address the staggering number of wage theft judgments that are not paid by unscrupulous employers.

The Wage Justice Center specializes in unraveling corporate schemes by employers and holding them accountable for wage theft. With so many wage theft claims and so few attorneys specializing in wage and hour laws in California, we simultaneously pursue systemic solutions:

Waging Justice for Exploited Workers

The Wage Justice Center has collected over $7.5 million in back wages and penalties owed to over 5,200 low-income workers. Most of these back wages were collected in cases that community groups, legal aid attorneys and the State of California had long written off.

Our professional legal team is assisted by a team of law school students and pro bono attorneys.

Innovative Wage-Collection Strategies

The Wage Justice Center uses innovative legal theories and legal tools borrowed from commercial collections law to collect wage theft judgments that would otherwise likely go uncollected. Wage theft collection must be informed, specifically, by the law of remedies, business/corporation law and commercial law.

Commercial collections cases – brought by suppliers or funders against these same businesses – do result in compensation for the aggrieved party. Through strategic litigation, the Wage Justice Center is giving low-income workers this same power to collect their wages that commercial entities have against other businesses.

Ultimately, the Wage Justice Center seeks to recognize a privileged claim by workers to collect unpaid wages against the businesses’ (and the business owners’) funds and assets that were accumulated, in large part, by these workers’ sweat.

Read select Wage Justice Center success stories. >>>

Mechanic’s Lien

A particularly effective enforcement strategy for day laborers is the Mechanic’s Lien. This tool allows construction workers to put a temporary hold (a lien) on the property of an employer who owes back wages.

Commercial creditors routinely put liens on real estate to collect what they are owed. In fact, this tool exists because state legislatures across the country have concluded that, due to the economics of the construction business, contractors and subcontractors need greater remedy for non-payment of their work than simply the right to sue.

Since launching this strategy in 2012, the Wage Justice Center has helped over 250 day laborers recover over $183,000 (each case averages $500-$2,000) in back wages, with nearly 100% success.

Long-Term Impact

By developing new strategies to enforce wage rights and educating workers, organizers, public interest & private attorneys and the public about such strategies, the Wage Justice Center empowers more long-abused workers to assert their basic rights and to collect unpaid wages from employers who have committed wage theft.

As we scale our efforts to educate more workers, public interest attorneys and organizers about these new strategies, we are reaching significantly more workers and will eventually realize permanent solutions to wage theft.

Legislative Changes

We’re proud of our 2015 legislative victory, SB 588, which expands the available penalties against businesses that engage in wage theft and empowers workers and their families to recover millions of dollars in back wages from deadbeat employers.

In 2015, the Wage Justice Center co-sponsored SB 588 (De León) “A Fair Day’s Pay” with SEIU California and Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA). With these allies and others including USWW, Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, and UCLA Labor Center, we collectively wrote the bill and fought to pass it.

On October 11, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 588 into law. This landmark victory expands available remedies to the California Labor Commissioner, including empowering the Labor Commissioner to place a lien on the employer’s property or levy the company’s bank accounts, including any amounts attributable as attorneys’ fees awarded to the employee. These provisions also apply on an individual basis to those who act “on behalf of” the employer; this means the Labor Commissioner can levy the personal property or bank accounts of a company owner who is found to have violated state wage law.

To address problems with employers that might close down business and then reopen with a new name in an attempt to dodge debts owed to workers or liens, SB 588 also provided workers with the ability to chase down new entities, resulting in significantly broader successor liability for employers.