Expert Commentary

Wage and hour violations in urban labor markets

2012 study by the City University of New York and the University of California, Los Angeles, on labor-law violations in urban centers in the United States.

Three industrial workers (iStock)

The September 2012 teachers’ union strike in Chicago and announcements to increase the minimum wage in 2013 in states such as Washington and Ohio have brought labor rights back into the public focus. A 2012 study from the City University of New York (CUNY) and UCLA looks not only at what specific labor laws are on the books in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but also at how consistently these laws are enforced. In “Wage and Hour Violations in Urban Labor Markets,” the researchers analyze the enforcement — or lack thereof — of a variety of workplace regulations in the three largest urban labor markets in the United States.

The study, published in the Industrial Relations Journal, analyzes interview responses to the 2008 Unregulated Work Survey (UWS), a research effort that conducted in-person interviews with 4,387 low-wage workers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. The authors note the following laws in place at the time of the study: in Los Angeles, the minimum wage was $8.00 and a 30-minute meal break was required for five consecutive hours of work; in New York, the minimum wage was $7.15 and a 30-minute meal break was required every six hours; and in Chicago, the minimum wages was $7.50, with a 20-minute meal break required for every 7.5 hours worked.

The study’s findings include:

  • For the seven key workplace violations studied, Los Angeles had “disproportionately high violation rates” compared to Chicago and New York.
  • In Los Angeles, 29.2% of workers reported receiving pay below minimum wage rates in the past week, compared to 23.8% in Chicago and 22.1% in New York. As for required meal breaks, 83.9% of Los Angeles workers reported having been denied at least part of a break in the past week; the rate was 73.3% in Chicago and 43.3% in New York.
  • Nineteen percent of workers in Los Angeles reported having wages stolen by a supervisor or fellow employee in the past workweek; such rates were 6.3% in New York and 4.2% in Chicago.
  • For the workplace violations related to minimum wage laws, mandated meal breaks, and workers’ compensation, California has higher legal standards than either New York State or Illinois, which is in part responsible for more citations issued in that state. For instance, the rate of workers’ compensation violations issued for the most recent on-the-job injuries in Los Angeles was 89.8%, compared to 16.0% and 19.6% in New York and Chicago, respectively.
  • Evidence suggests that Los Angeles’ higher workplace violation rates are at least in part due to California’s stronger workplace laws, compared to New York State and Illinois.
  • There are several other factors that could contribute to higher abuse rates in Los Angeles, including: a lower percentage of workers employed in industries with typically low workplace violation rates (public administration, education); a larger percentage in violation-prone industries, such as garment manufacturing and domestic service; and the fact that more vulnerable non-U.S. citizens make up a larger share of the Los Angeles workforce than in New York or Chicago.

The researchers conclude that labor laws are not adequately enforced in any of the three cites: “Stronger laws designed to protect low-wage workers are urgently needed throughout the nation, but even if labour standards are raised — as they have been in California — in the absence of adequate enforcement, the epidemic of wage theft and other workplace violations is likely to persist.” The authors also note that their study raises several issues that need further investigation. One major issue is the fact that employers in violation of California’s labor laws may “implicitly accept the less stringent federal standards as legitimate; some may even believe themselves to be in compliance with the law.”

Tags: law, California, Latino, Hispanic, labor unions, organized labor