Honor a Promise Made to California’s Garment Workers

Garment workers form the backbone of L.A.’s manufacturing sector. But tens of thousands of garment workers are routinely underpaid—or not paid at all—for work performed. Wage theft is rampant across L.A.’s low-wage industries: Angelenos lose $26.2 million dollars a week in unpaid wages. But more than four in five workers who win their wage theft cases never end up seeing a dime.

Garment workers in Los Angeles, most of whom are immigrant women, regularly work more than 12 hours per day and 60 to 70 hours per week while receiving only $3 to $4 per hour—far below California’s $12 minimum wage—with no overtime pay. The garment industry sees the highest rates of wage theft in the city.

But when found guilty of wage theft, many of the smaller garment factories simply close their doors, declare bankruptcy, or otherwise avoid paying their workers. Tragically, a fund established by the State of California to ensure these workers are repaid their stolen wages even if their employers won’t pay is completely bankrupt, leaving hundreds of workers waiting years for millions of dollars in wages they have already proven they are owed.

The Garment Restitution Fund was created by the California legislature 20 years ago to ensure that garment industry workers whose wages were stolen are made whole. If an employee could not collect from the employer because they had declared bankruptcy or closed their doors, the fund would pay workers the wages owed.

The funding comes from the annual registration or renewal fees that garment industry employers are required to pay to do business in the state. Similar funds exist for farm and car wash workers because, as with the garment industry, the State has determined that egregious industry conditions and vulnerabilities for the workers warrant this type of payor of last resort.

Unfortunately, these registration and renewal fees have remained frozen in place for the past 20 years, while the minimum wage and worker claims have risen steadily, meaning the revenues flowing into the Garment Restitution Fund have not kept up with the demands on the Fund. As a result, workers who have already proven what they’re owed are on a waiting list of 5 to 20 years to be compensated for thousands of dollars in stolen wages.

We need to reform this 20-year-old statute to ensure the long-term stability and solvency of the Fund. The most immediate need, however, is to eliminate this unjust waitlist. After all, no worker who relied on the promise of the Fund should be told—after they came forward, filed a wage claim with the State, and won their case—that the Fund is empty and they will have to wait years to receive their stolen wages. This is fundamentally unfair and erodes workers’ trust in government and labor enforcement agencies.

Last week in Sacramento, the Conference Committee on the Budget approved a one-time appropriation to help end the years-long wait for workers who have already proven they were cheated out of their earned wages. This is wonderful news for garment workers and their families, and a great first step.

It is essential that the Fund’s backlog be resolved now so that workers need not wait years, or even decades, to collect on their unpaid wage judgments they have already been awarded. Without this appropriation, the backlog would only grow steadily worse, sending the message to garment industry employers that they can continue their illegal wage practices with impunity.

Garment workers and advocates are now poised to work with Governor Newsom’s office to ensure implementation of this budget action, and look forward to working with lawmakers to fix the structural problems with the Fund to ensure its long-term solvency.

Garment workers contribute to the profitability of the huge California retail industry. They constitute the largest manufacturing base in the City of Los Angeles, but they often don’t get their due. These workers, their families, and our communities suffer greatly from the rampant wage theft in this industry. It is time to bring immediate justice to the lives of these workers with this one-time budget allocation to remedy this current wage theft crisis, and to work to improve the Fund so that it can continue to keep California’s promise to garment workers who are not paid their earned wages.

Jennifer Lin is the California Economic Justice Campaign Manager for the National Employment Law Project