A Focus on the Underground Economy: Resources for Workers and Employers

Helen Chen and Suzanne Teran of LOHP are working with the state’s Labor Enforcement Task Force (LETF) to implement an outreach and education project targeting workers and employers in the underground economy.  LETF, which is under the direction of the California Department of Industrial Relations, is a coalition of California state government agencies that work together and with local agencies to combat workplace violations in the underground economy. “Workers in the underground economy work, at best, in an informal way, and at worst, in hidden workplaces that operate as if no laws exist,” says Helen Chen.  “By paying workers in cash and by neglecting to provide paystubs and other documentation, employers can flout minimum wage and overtime laws, expose workers to unsafe and hazardous conditions, and fail to compensate workers with work-related injuries and illnesses.”

letf booklet
Helen and Suzanne assisted LETF in developing a new workers’ rights booklet, “All Workers Have Rights in California,” which is geared towards low-wage and immigrant workers.  The booklet, which will be translated into several languages, describes the rights California workers are entitled to, including minimum wage, rest and meal breaks, safe and healthy jobs, and workers’ compensation. Recognizing that workers take great risks in exercising those rights, LOHP has included a section on the right of workers to take action, including practical tips to minimize the risk that employers will retaliate against workers who speak up. “One of the most important things that LOHP can do is to support workers in taking action,” says Suzanne Teran.  “We often hear of workers’ fear of being fired or punished if they report a safety hazard or unpaid wages.  We also know of workers who have successfully filed complaints and received what they are due, especially if they have support from worker organizations. In this new booklet, strategies for avoiding retaliation are just as important as legal information about meal and rest breaks.”

The booklet emphasizes the rights of undocumented workers and reinforces the message that all workers have rights, no matter where they were born or what their legal status is. In the coming year, LOHP will be working to disseminate the booklets statewide and to provide training and assistance to community-based organizations and others that will distribute these materials to workers and put them to use in the most effective ways. LOHP is also developing employer factsheets for LETF’s five targeted industries: restaurants, construction, agriculture, garment and auto body.  These factsheets inform employers about labor laws and common violations in each industry, and emphasize both the benefits of compliance as well as the consequences of non-compliance. This effort is intended to complement the on-going enforcement efforts of the agencies.  “Our educational efforts, no matter how strategic, cannot reach the most egregious employers in California,” says Helen. “The state labor agencies will get the most bang for their buck by conducting full investigations of the worst violators, penalizing those employers to the fullest extent, and widely publicizing those victories.  Our role at LOHP is to build on that by providing the information and resources employers need to comply with labor laws and avoid those penalties, while at the same time supporting workers whose employers are not in compliance.”