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News from EPI New report documents innovative community enforcement programs to fight wage theft

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute and the Harvard Center for Labor and a Just Economy documents the growing trend of labor enforcement agencies partnering with worker centers and other nonprofits to fight wage theft and workplace violations. 

In these community enforcement programs (sometimes referred to as “co-enforcement”), government agencies or jurisdictions fund nonprofit worker organizations to do outreach and education to workers, particularly vulnerable or marginalized workers unlikely to report violations to the government. This report analyzes best practices for designing, funding, and implementing these programs, and reviews key policy rationales for such programs, including: 

  • They help labor agencies reach vulnerable workers and learn about hard-to-detect serious labor violations; 
  • They build the capacity for worker centers and other nonprofits to serve and engage workers who experience wage theft; and 
  • They help develop worker leadership and create space for workers’ voices within government and in public policy. 

The report describes programs at the federal level, as well as in California, Maine, Chicago, Iowa City and vicinity, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego County, San Francisco, Santa Clara County (CA), Seattle, and Washington D.C. 

These actions come as working people in the United States face many challenges and demand change. Outdated labor laws are skewed against workers trying to form and join unions. Public enforcement resources are inadequate, and workers increasingly are unable to bring their claims in court because of forced arbitration. Many workers may fear retaliation for reporting wage theft or other violations to the government, a concern which is often more acute among immigrant workers. Community enforcement programs can help government agencies reach isolated workers and address serious labor violations. 

“Working in a partnership illustrates that the local government has a critical interest to protect the rights of workers,” said Brandon Butler, Director of the County of San Diego Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement. 

“The tools available to our workers center partners are different than ours, but their work enforcing labor standards is also highly effective,” said Brian Walsh, Director of the City of Minneapolis Labor Standards Enforcement Division. “For standards to truly rise for all workers, we need all parts of a continuum of enforcement to be activated.”

“Building a culture of compliance with workplace standards requires empowering workers to monitor their employers and hold them accountable for violations. Worker organizations have been supplying a critical bridge between labor standards agencies and low-wage, immigrant workers for many years—now it’s essential these organizations are sustainably resourced for this work and that their insights shape program design,” said Rachel Deutsch, one of the authors of the report.