Labor Commissioner Julie Su Cracks Down on Employers That Exploit Workers & Violate the Law

Mitch Seaman

No one wins when employers break labor laws, but whenever California’s star Labor Commissioner Julie Su announces the latest round of enforcement actions, it sure feels like a victory.

Case in point: This week, Commissioner Su hit three of the worst violators with over $1.8 million in backpay and penalty assessments for stealing employees’ wages, defrauding the workers’ comp system and willfully breaking a variety of other workforce protection laws. Her efforts to ensure the responsible use of public funds, protect workers and promote legitimate contractors help keep California a great place to live and work.

Workers’ Comp Reform Ends Business as Usual at the Rating Bureau

—workers’ compensation reform recently signed by Governor Jerry Brown—have argued that the legislation would deliver better benefits for workers at reduced cost to employers. As evidence, we pointed to Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau (WCIRB) numbers confirming that SB 863 could reduce a planned 12.6% insurance rate increase by a few percentage points.

Never in our wildest dreams did we expect SB 863 to inspire anything more than a slightly smaller rate increase, but then the WCIRB Governing Committee stunned the California insurance world last week by eliminating that 12.6% rate hike entirely, potentially saving employers hundreds of millions of dollars while leaving SB 863’s benefit increases untouched. Sometimes, it seems, dreams really do come true.

Back to the Future: Preventing a Collapse in the Workers’ Compensation System

Legislators are often criticized for delayed reactions to inevitable crises. Those legislators would likely counter that only hindsight is 20/20, but sometimes it’s crystal clear that everyone should have seen a disaster coming.

For example, all involved in the California workers’ compensation debate agree that our beleaguered system is unsustainable, and employer costs will someday increase so dramatically that major, sudden reform will be necessary.  (Experts estimate that workers comp costs will grow 18% in 2012 alone). As workers, we’ve seen this movie before, and we’re painfully aware that such a rushed fix will put our benefits on the chopping block. Rather than sit around and wait for that inevitable reckoning, though, legislators this year should seize a rare opportunity to prevent such a crisis.

‘Unemployed’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Unemployable’

In any recession, from any era, unemployed workers face challenges that are unique to the time but consistent across history. Finding new work is never easy, but during a recession the search can prove almost impossible, as greater numbers of unemployed workers fight over fewer available jobs. For example, at the peak of the current downturn, around seven unemployed workers existed for every open position. Though this 7-1 ratio has since improved to 4-1, the outlook remains bleak and the unemployed still struggle.

Making matters worse, the severity and structural nature of the current downturn means many jobs are gone for good, and idled workers need all the help they can get when finding new work. Some employers, however, disagree, and have even begun refusing to consider the unemployed for open positions. We believe this insidious new policy stands out as a particularly inexplicable and inexcusable form of discrimination, and legislators should act immediately to stop the practice in its tracks.

Workers Memorial Day: A Time to Honor the Fallen, Protect the Injured and Prevent Future Fatalities

Every year on April 28th, working families nationwide gather to commemorate Workers Memorial Day and honor those who’ve lost their lives to work-related injury or illness. The occasion commits every one of us to prevent additional fatalities and minimize workplace injuries — and always call on others to do the same. April 28th also presents us, as workers, with a unique opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices we make and to renew the fight for the safety and respect we deserve at work.

In 2010, over 300 Californians lost their lives in work-related accidents, and about 6,500 died from chronic workplace exposure to chemicals and other toxins. Workers throughout every industry sector are affected, and potentially deadly hazards persist in every workplace.

Workers’ Comp Reform: Undoing the Damage of Schwarzenegger’s Rules

by Mitch Seaman

California’s workers’ compensation system was created a century ago to provide medical treatment and wage replacement benefits to workers injured on the job. Employers fund the system, and in return, injured workers are generally prohibited from suing the employer of injury—even if employer negligence was to blame. What sounds like a grand compromise has, in practice, become something of a nightmare. But most of the worst abuses are relatively new, and the system wasn’t always quite so broken.

Among labor’s top priorities for 2012 will be a massive overhaul of the entire workers compensation system. That’s why the California Labor Federation today launched its campaign to restore benefits to injured workers with the release of “Workers’ Compensation Reform: Undoing the Damage of Schwarzenegger’s Rules,” a research paper outlining concerns with the current system and recommendations for how it could better serve injured workers.

New Website Helps Workers Enforce Workers’ Compensation Law

On Thursday, March 1st, an exciting new website launched to allow California workers access to their employer’s workers compensation coverage status. With this website, any employee can now verify whether or not their employer carries valid workers compensation coverage—information that not only keeps workers safe but helps the public and regulators crack down on the underground economy.

This valuable new tool was created by AB 483 (Buchanan), backed by the California Labor Federation and passed into law in 2009. AB 483 directed California’s Workers Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau (WCIRB) to collect the information and present it publicly through an easily accessible Internet website.

Bank of America - A Unique Display of Corporate Greed

by Bank of America’s $5 debit fee announcement on Friday, accusing the banking behemoth of committing “…a common mistake large corporations make: taking the customer for granted, holding the belief that whatever products or services they offer are unique and indispensible, so their customers will always be there.”

While we agree that Bank of America’s incompetence runs rampant throughout the banking industry, by several measures of greed and arrogance, this troubled corporation stands alone. Allow us to present Bank of America with the following uniquely dubious titles:

Putting Workers Before Wall Street

Lost in the debate around California’s regulatory environment is a simple fact: regulations didn’t crash the economy. Wall Street banks crashed the economy.

Not only did greedy Wall Street bankers get us into this mess, they’re certainly not doing anything to help the middle class dig out. They’re even devising ways to exploit the economic crisis and the mass unemployment it’s caused to pad their pockets. That’s why the California Labor Federation partnered with consumer advocates and others on two key bills to protect workers from the worst Wall Street abuses.

Fighting for Fair Treatment for Farmworkers

Three years ago this Monday, María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez collapsed and died after spending 9 hours pruning grapevines in Farmington. She was 17 years old, engaged and two months pregnant. This tragic loss, however, was far from accidental.

As the temperature soared to 95 degrees that day, Maria Isabel’s employer ignored California’s outdoor heat regulations requiring adequate drinking water, shade and rest. When she collapsed, Merced Farm Labor company bosses still denied her both shade and even medical treatment, and following a failed attempt to revive her—by draping an alcohol-soaked cloth over her face—released her to fiancee Florentino Bautista. Florentino, who had been working alongside her that day, recalls supervisors “grumbling” at workers who tried to drink water. Maria Isabel died two days later at Lodi Memorial Hospital.

An Open Letter to Rep. Darrell Issa

reported Tuesday that last month you delivered letters to over 150 corporations, trade associations and conservative think tanks, requesting a list of their least favorite “existing and proposed regulations” that you, as House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair, could help eliminate. The article further highlights your appeal for “suggestions on reforming identified regulations and the rulemaking process.”

Obviously there’s been some sort of mistake. As I’m sure you’re aware, Duke Energy, Toyota and Bayer—all recipients of your letter—are not residents of California’s gorgeous 49th district. Maybe you were thrown by the names of the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), hoping they were consumer-driven nonprofits focused on improving the safety of oil production and transport—assuming you’d like to protect the 49th district’s world-class beaches and environmental beauty.