The State of California and its union allies claim they’re cracking down on so-called “wage theft.” But this term has been inaccurately weaponized by labor unions to describe any wide range of labor violations — even accidental ones — that certainly don’t qualify as literal theft.
Six years ago, the state launched its California Strategic Enforcement Partnership with 17 labor-friendly organizations, most of them worker centers — aka. union front groups. This close working relationship between the state and these worker centers seems highly inappropriate — after all, the worker centers have an explicitly pro-labor agenda. In addition, a recent study suggests they’re aiming to fix a problem that doesn’t exist, and targeting our state’s small and medium-size businesses in the process.
Consider the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which just last year launched a campaign in California to create an unprecedented new legal council empowered to set wages and work conditions for the fast food industry. In reality, the legislation — which recently became law — targets small business owners in an effort to unionize the entire industry.
Californian workers can already file complaints directly with the state, or they can sue their employers under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). And we know hundreds of PAGA suits are filed each year, mainly to the benefit of trial lawyers. On top of that, businesses already have enough of a minefield to navigate considering California’s labor code is the most complicated in the country. So was this new law really necessary?
As you probably guessed, the answer is no. In fact, a recent study debunked the SEIU’s claims that the fast food industry was a bad actor when it came to “wage-theft.”
According to the study, limited-service restaurants account for only 1.6 percent annually of total average wage claims filed with the state from 2017 through 2022. Across all years of data analyzed, there was roughly one wage claim per one-thousand private sector employees in limited service–one of the lower per-employee industry rates. Additionally, the limited-service restaurant industry accounted for just 1.5 percent of total PAGA lawsuits in all industries where awards were granted to employees, and only 1.8 percent of all dollars awarded to employees.
Given that data, it doesn’t sound like we’re anywhere near a “wage-theft” crisis. Of course, that doesn’t fit with the union’s narrative. Unfortunately, working so closely with pro-labor groups means the state is at risk of adopting that narrative, and turning itself from regulator to advocate.