Wage Law Enforcement


To supplement often under-funded public enforcement and legal services agencies, states can also encourage unions and other workers' advocates to help bring legal actions against wage law violators.  

  • Laws can be modeled on California's Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act, which allows present and former employees to collect not only damages for unpaid wages, but also twenty-five percent of the civil penalties that are normally paid to the state as well.
  • San Francisco's city minimum wage ordinance authorizes community groups and unions to file complaints without having to show that the workers not being paid are their members.
  • A number of states give outside labor advocates access to non-work areas of employer property to educate employees on their rights. Massachusetts, California(see §20900 of the CA Agricultural Labor Relations, Solicitation by Non-Employee Organizers regulations) and a few other states give farmworker advocates access to agricultural fields; states including California, Colorado and New Jersey require mall owners to give union organizers, as well as others, access to sidewalks, parking lots and interior public spaces.



Whatever the penalties and the law, one key to enforcement is making sure agencies are well-funded and creatively coordinate their work for maximum effectiveness.  Instead of promoting a narrow tactic like sanctions against employers of undocumented workers, which only drives the problem of low-wage employment underground, New York State has created a new Bureau of Immigrant Workers' Rights.  This new agency has already moved forward in cracking down on low-wage law violators - sending a van out to churches and community groups to encourage immigrant workers to come forward to report wage law violations - teaching an important lesson that outreach, not pushing immigrants into the shadows, is the key to raising wage standards for all.


States are also increasingly targeting the employer tactic of misclassifying employees as "independent contractors," which excludes workers from minimum wage, prevailing wage, overtime, health and safety, and right to organize protections.  Because of these problems, cracking down on misclassification of independent contractors is becoming a priority for many states:

  • In 2007, Minnesota and Colorado both enacted new laws cracking down on misclassification of employees as "independent contractors" to evade state wage laws.
  • In 2008, legislatures in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New HampshireNew York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin all introduced new laws to crack down on employers misclassifying employees as independent contractors to evade wage laws.
  • In 2008, Utah, SB 159 makes it fraud to misclassify an employee to avoid the obligation to obtain workers' compensation insurance coverage, and SB 189 establishes a council to study how to reduce costs resulting from the misclassification of workers.
  • The New York Attorney General's office has aggressively pursued wage claims against joint employers, including against large supermarket and drugstore chains for unpaid wages due to delivery workers misclassified as independent contractors.  
  • Connecticut's 2007 law, Pub. Act. No. 07-89, provides that employers who misrepresent the number or type of their employees for purposes of the workers' compensation system, can be issued a stop work order and ordered to pay a fine of up to $1,000.  In 2008, Connecticut HB 5113 and SB 454 established a commission to review the problem of employer misclassification for purposes of avoiding obligations under state and federal labor, employment, and tax laws.

See also:


Despite the media focus on a handful of states passing anti-immigrant measures, the unreported story has been the increasing crackdown by state governments on wage law violators as a response to the growing underground economy.  A few examples include:

  • The Arizona and Ohio minimum wage ballot initiatives passed by voters in 2006 included new triple damages against employers violating their state wage laws. 
  • In 2008, Massachusetts made it the law, SB 1059, that triple damages will be mandatory for violations of that state's wage law.
  • Iowa  SF 2416 (approved in the Senate) would have established triple damages for wage law violations and created significantly larger civil penalties, including severe penalties for retaliation against employees reporting violations.
  • Responsible contracting laws in a few states and cities now deny public contracts or operating licenses to wage law violators.  See Los Angeles Responsible Contractor Ordinance for one example and San Francisco's city minimum wage for provisions that authorize city agencies to revoke permits or licenses for businesses that violate the law.
  • A number of jurisdictions are increasingly applying "theft of wages" statutes to enforce criminal sanctions against wage law violators.  Many states already have "theft of wages" statutes on the books, so all that is needed is to enforce these provisions.  See NELP's Using Criminal Theft of Service Laws To Enforce Workers' Right to be Paid (NELP) for more on how to use such criminal theft statutes or add them to a state's criminal code.

Immigration Raids vs. Enforcing Labor Rights - Iowa seeks alternatives to broken families and communities

The federal government is fixated on raiding workplaces in search of immigrant workers, but they have practically abandoned punishing irresponsible employers violating wage, workplace safety and child labor laws.  Demonstrating a remarkable commitment to punishing the victims, they've left it up to states to take action against the more pervasive problem of sweatshop labor conditions.

New PSN Report: The Anti-Immigrant Movement that Failed

Today, the Progressive States Network is releasing a new report: The Anti-Immigrant Movement that Failed: Positive Integration Policies by States Still Far Outweigh Punitive Policies Aimed at New Immigrants.   The Executive Summary is available online, as well as the full report in PDF and HTML format.

State Immigration Project: Policy Options for 2009

Download a copy of the reports in PDF format here.  View the HTML version of the report here.