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 Santa Clara County and the County’s Wage Theft Coaltion released a report to the public addressing wage theft crime in the county this past Monday, April 21 in a media conference at the county’s government center. Wage theft is the crime of stealing earned wages from workers, not paying for overtime work, paying less than minimum wage, working off the clock, and paying workers only in tips. According to a national study, each year the average low-wage worker will lose 15 percent of their wages to wage theft.

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“Most of the low wage workers are women, and with the rise of single headed household by women here in Santa Clara County, this is an issue that affects families,” said Esther Peralez-Dieckmann from the Office of Women’s Policy in the conference address. Caregiver Joann Sullivan is one worker in the county who suffered from wage theft. “Even though my employer took $60 from my wages for medical insurance every month, they did not actually provide medical to us,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan said she suffered from health issues and had to be hospitalized. She ended up paying her own hospital bill. Other workers at her place of employment were paid with two checks. One check listing their regular hours, another check to reflect any hours worked overtime, except the check was written at regular pay instead of overtime pay. “This way my employer could avoid paying overtime to the workers and paying less taxes to the government,” said Sullivan.

The San Jose based office of the California Labor Commissioner handles approximately 300 enforcement claims from workers, monthly, making it the highest number in all 16 regions. In 2012-2013 almost 2000 workers filed claims with the labor commissioner. They were awarded $8.4 million in owed wages. Of the $8.4 million, workers were only able to collect 33%. Supervisor Dave Cortese said this reflects an enforcement gap.

“Current enforcement efforts have a stemming problem. There’s a need for local government to take a leadership role in ensuring that jobs in our county are good quality jobs,” said Cortese. “Moreover once people have those jobs, but are actually paid, and can collect their wages. We need to make sure that government contracts don’t go to businesses that don’t comply with these rules. “

The report found that workers are afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation from their employers.

“Workers are often deterred from coming forward to complain for fear of losing their job or being deported. It’s important to note however that federal and state laws prohibit wage theft regardless of immigration status of a worker,” said Shannon Gleason Ph.D.

Gleason’s research through University of California Santa Cruz found unpaid wages can result in increased homelessness and inability to pay for food and healthcare. “Employers know that there are few consequences for not paying workers. They operate in a culture of non-compliance,” said Ruth Silver Taube Supervising Attorney of Worker Rights Programs for Katharine and Alexander Community Law Center. Taube said, as a county, an ordinance needs to be enacted that provides for suspension of permits for businesses that are wage theft violators.

The report recommends screening all businesses that receive a County benefit to ensure wage theft violators are not eligible. It also recommends the County Recorder keep a wage lien record for victims of wage theft as an incentive for employers to pay their workers.

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