How San Francisco Became a Labor Enforcement Laboratory

Community Partners Are Helping Local Government Protect and Empower Low-Wage Workers

Since governments lack the capacity to enforce labor laws by themselves, they must work in tandem with entities that have long histories of efforts to empower workers, argues labor law expert Seema N. Patel. San Francisco City Hall. Courtesy of Loren Javier/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED).

In the U.S., there is a chasm between what the labor laws say and what workers experience as their everyday realities. That’s because employment here is based on private contractual law, or agreements between two parties—and the deeply misguided assumption that those two parties have equal bargaining power.

We need to bridge that chasm. Doing so will require stronger unions; more aggressive legislation by Congress; more resources for, and enforcement by, local and federal agencies; and changes in our courts, which have been hostile to labor enforcement and unions.

Until all that happens, the best model we have for enforcing labor laws is in California.

You could call it the California Model of Co-Enforcement. Or you might call it the San Francisco Model, because that’s where it started. Whatever you call it, the idea is this: Since governments lack the capacity to enforce the laws by themselves, they must work in tandem with entities that have long histories of efforts to empower workers, like S.F.’s Chinese Progressive Association and Filipino Community Center.

Through co-enforcement, government agencies enable the worker centers to pursue the pay, rights, and fair treatment workers are entitled to under the law, but that they don’t always get in employer-friendly legal systems.

The co-enforcement model did not appear overnight. It took years of workers organizing, building, and winning to create it. Co-enforcement supplemented the state’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), passed in 2003, that “gives workers a fighting chance in court” to confront their employers’ wrongdoing, according to a UCLA Labor Center report.

Now, the model is threatened. Business groups have bankrolled a ballot initiative that would all but eliminate workers’ rights under PAGA. If the initiative were to pass, it would deaden the state labor agency’s ability to contract with non-governmental entities or attorneys to enforce worker protections against violating employers. And that would not only threaten the progress workers have made under PAGA—it would threaten the co-enforcement model itself.

The story of the California Model starts at the turn of the 21st century, with the closure of San Francisco garment factories. Community organizations that had focused on organizing these factories, especially the Chinese Progressive Association, began reaching out to workers in other low-wage job sectors. Realizing the common struggles across trades, the city’s worker centers banded together and fomented a movement that led San Francisco voters to approve a local minimum wage law in 2003.

The minimum wage catalyzed San Francisco’s development into the site of the broadest range of worker protection laws of any municipality in the United States. Among the city’s worker mandates are paid sick days, a health care coverage mandate, protections for formerly incarcerated workers, secure scheduling, paid parental leave, pay equity, and time and space for lactation.

To enforce these new laws, San Francisco extended investigative and enforcement powers to its Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, known as OLSE. But even with a staff that had grown to two dozen, OLSE couldn’t investigate and enforce every violation of these labor standards. So, in 2006, the city established its novel model of co-enforcement, a series of formal collaborations with community partners that had a history of supporting workers, such as the Chinese Progressive Association.

The minimum wage catalyzed San Francisco’s development into the site of the broadest range of worker protection laws of any municipality in the United States.

The idea behind co-enforcement was simple. Community partners already served as important anchors for marginalized workers. Now, they could build on that past work and train those workers to identify, report, and fight back against wage theft and other violations. OLSE had a particular interest in empowering low-wage, immigrant, and limited-English-proficiency workers to target their efforts in communities where wage theft is most likely to occur.

As OLSE created and boosted funding for these contracts with community partners, the initiative became known as the “community collaborative.” I was once involved in overseeing these contracts and the network of partnerships. The partners included the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Dolores Street Community Services (which had a long history of assisting refugees, homeless people, AIDS patients and LGBT people), Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, Young Workers United, La Raza Centro Legal (a half-century old advocate for the Bay Area’s Latinos), and the Filipino Community Center, which had been founded in 2004 to support Filipino airport screeners who had been laid off.

One of the victories that emerged from San Francisco’s co-enforcement model was a $4.25 million settlement with the popular dim sum restaurant Yank Sing, which was forcing workers to work 10-plus hour days without breaks, stealing tips from workers, and belittling an otherwise vulnerable workforce almost every day. With help from the Chinese Progressive Association, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, and UNITE HERE Local 2, which assisted with strategic research, the workers not only won unpaid wages but also achieved a workplace transformation for the restaurant’s nearly 300 employees.

The changes included meal and rest breaks, paid sick days, wages higher than the local minimum (including a 5% raise for non-tipped workers), non-mandated holiday pay and vacation pay, full health coverage with no deductibles, and the right to take up to four weeks of approved time off without risking their jobs—something many workers needed in order to visit families in China. The settlement even included an apology.

Since then, San Francisco’s co-enforcement approach has spawned imitators. Beginning in 2013, several other cities (among them New York City, Seattle, Oakland, San Jose, and Emeryville) developed offices similar to OLSE, and seeded co-enforcement partnerships with local community organizations.

In 2016, the state got in on the co-enforcement action. The California Labor Commissioner’s Office—then led by the pioneering labor lawyer Julie Su, who is today the acting U.S. labor secretary—formed the California Strategic Enforcement Partnership. Rather than wait for the long and often futile process of filing complaints, and conducting hearings and trying to collect judgments for unpaid wages, the state began using co-enforcement to target wage theft in six low-wage industries: agriculture, car washes, construction, janitorial, residential home care, and restaurants.

The state partnered with the National Employment Law Project and 14 workers’ rights and legal advocacy organizations. Among the initiative’s most publicized successes were enforcement actions for harsh treatment and illegally low pay at the Los Angeles-area car washes.

This new model of workers’ rights enforcement has made California a labor enforcement laboratory, and at the right time. As other major California cities have followed San Francisco’s lead—passing minimum wage laws and other worker protections and supporting enforcement—they have empowered workers, influenced industry practices, and found ways to build a more sustainable enforcement system throughout the state.

Co-enforcement is necessary because of weak federal labor laws, and dangerously low rates of unionization. (One study by the Economic Policy Institute concluded that less than 2% of the nearly $50 billion in wages stolen annually is ever recovered by workers.) The co-enforcement models have inspired other vehicles for worker empowerment.

When the pandemic hit, it was the S.F. co-enforcement model that inspired the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) to partner with 61 community organizations throughout the state and create the COVID-19 Workplace Outreach Project (CWOP). This government-community partnership deployed “trusted messengers” to those frontline workers, to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of all citizens. Similarly, the Domestic Worker Rights Education and Outreach Program (DWEOP) ensures that housekeepers and nannies—workers who unfortunately do not enjoy the right to unionize—nevertheless can be educated about and trained in their labor rights and their employers’ responsibilities.

The co-enforcement model has some challenges. Building relationships between workers and the officials of government agencies—both of whom are busy working, and not in the same places—can be hard. Government procedures that require confidentiality can be difficult to square with the community’s desire for transparency. But the deeper the co-enforcement model has taken root, the better the outcomes that have emerged—for business, consumers, the agency, and for workers themselves.

There have been many promising lessons. One is that such collaborations render government officials more knowledgeable about labor violations, and sophisticated in their approach to enforcement. The second is that the state agency can only fulfill its mission with the support of community partners (which is why the November 2024 ballot initiative to gut the Private Attorneys General Act is such a threat). The most important aspect of a co-enforcement model is that it enables an organized and informed workforce to demand and attain compliance with the labor standards to which they are entitled under law.

Co-enforcement provides direct connection, funding, and legitimacy that can be game-changing for empowering workers. It also provides enforcement agencies with a trove of new education and connections to the underground economy. Co-enforcement is a win-win-win for workers, for community organizations, and for government agencies seeking effective and efficient ways to enforce laws in the low-wage sectors.

We need this California model of win-win-win to go national.

Seema N. Patel is Thomas C. Grey Fellow & Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School and recently completed a term as Practitioner-in-Residence at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.


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