“NOTICE TO PROPERTY OWNER, if the person that has given you this notice is not paid in full for work performed at real property you own, a lien may be placed on your property after a period of 20 days from the date this notice is served. Foreclosure of the lien may lead to loss of all or part of your property. You may wish to protect yourself against this by (1) ensuring that the person that has given you this notice is paid in full for work performed, or (2) any other method that is appropriate under the circumstances.”
So reads the opening part of the notice that could soon be sent by certified mail to California employers who illegally withhold, steal, or deny their workers’ wages. Passed by the State Assembly in a 43-27 vote on May 28, California’s Wage Theft Prevention bill is designed to address wage theft, a catch-all term that workers’ rights advocates use to cover the range of abuses that low-wage workers in the state suffer “all too frequently,” according to a 2008 report from the UCLA Labor Center. “Almost 30 percent of workers surveyed were paid less than the minimum wage in the previous week,” according to the study’s authors, and “and almost 80 percent of workers who worked more than 40 hours a week were not paid the legally required overtime rate of pay.” Other violations that fall into the category of “wage theft” include being denied paid breaks and lunches, and being forced to work off the clock.
What’s more, a 2012 study from UCLA and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that when workers sue to get their stolen wages back, even when they win, they rarely get anything back. In California, the study found, between 2008 and 2011, just 17 percent of workers who prevailed in their wage claims and received a judgment were able to recover any payment at all.
Finally, though, workers’ rights advocates appear to have located a pressure point for unscrupulous employers who steal wages from their workers: the lien. “Nobody wants a lien on their property,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, Maryland, where a wage lien law slightly different from the one being considered in California was passed in October 2013. “We expect to begin changing the playing field with this new law by using this simple process.”
“Passing the Assembly was a victory for low-wage workers,” says Alexandra Suh, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), “Workers deserve to be paid for the work they have done.”
Indeed, nobody wants a lien. Liens can spook creditors, sometimes causing lenders to withdraw existing lines of credit–such as a mortgage–that can lead to things like foreclosure. A business with a lien against its property is also a poor risk for investors, who will quickly look elsewhere for places to put their money. Business owners, then, may rank high among the groups of people who would not want a lien on their property.
The California Chamber of Commerce revved up its lobbying machinery when the bill was first introduced in 2013, beginning with a PR campaign designed to confuse and frighten the electorate. Using every tool at their disposal to spread the word, they falsely claimed the bill could be used to file a lien against a private homeowner if cable or other utility contractors were underpaid for their service calls. The wage theft protection bill subsequently died in committee that year. Afterward, the Cal Chamber gloated about its death in a press release, and on their Facebook page called the bill a “Job Killer,” asserting that “It is patently unfair to hold an innocent third party liable for the alleged, unproven acts of another.” This claim that “innocent third party” homeowners could have liens placed on their homes for unpaid contractor work done in the home, which Suh says is false, has been repeated over and over in the press. It even appears in a May 28 Associated Press article about the bill’s passage in the Assembly. Since 2013, though, the bill has been changed, so that now, according to Suh, no private residence can have a wage lien placed on it unless the worker who did the work was hired directly by the homeowner. The bill, Suh emphasizes, is designed to target commercial employers that employ many low-wage workers.
Of course, few business owners are willing to self-identify as lawbreakers in order to fight something as virtuous-sounding as the CA Wage Theft Prevention Act. But, it appears, they will pay the Cal Chamber to fight it. KIWA, along with Assembly member Mark Stone (who authored the bill), is part of a coalition of ethical business owners, workers’ rights groups and community members who plan to work through the summer to move the bill through the state Senate and to expose the Cal Chamber’s defense of wage-stealing bad-actor employers. “As we head into the Senate fight, it’s going to be a fight with the Chamber,” said Suh. “It’s definitely going to be a hot summer.”