By Dan Gildor
You’ve probably heard the term “wage theft” before, but you might not be sure exactly what it means. Simply put, wage theft is when an employer doesn’t pay their employees all the wages they’re legally owed. This can happen in a variety of ways, such as paying less than minimum wage, not paying overtime wages, denying workers their meal and rest breaks without compensation, by misclassifying employees as contractors or exempt employees, or requiring workers to clock out before working overtime hours or falsifying timesheets.
Widespread Impact: Wage Theft in California
Wage theft is widespread in California, and is particularly egregious in low-wage industries, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable workers. It’s estimated that California workers lose around $2 billion a year to wage theft. This means that millions of workers are being cheated out of the money they deserve. This loss can have a devastating impact on workers and their families. It can make it difficult to make ends meet, pay for rent and groceries, and afford basic necessities. In some cases, wage theft can even lead to eviction or homelessness.
Wage theft and practices like misclassification do not only harm workers, they also create unfair competition for responsible employers who follow the law. Wage theft also hurts California and localities because more workers fall into poverty, the safety net is eroded, workers increasingly rely upon public resources, and payroll taxes are not paid.
Many workers are unaware of their rights or are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation from their employer. The main reason, however, is that labor law enforcement in California has been lax, making it easy for employers to get away with wage theft.
Challenges Before AB 594
Prior to AB 594, the enforcement of labor laws primarily rested on the shoulders of the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), an agency often overwhelmed by a vast number of complaints and limited resources. This overburdened system made it challenging to hold employers accountable for their wrongdoings, leaving many workers without recourse when faced with wage theft and other labor code violations.
California has taken some steps in the past to address wage theft. For example, the Legislature enacted the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) that allows employees to sue their employers for wage theft. However, there has been a growing movement to weaken or repeal PAGA—including a ballot measure in 2024 that would repeal PAGA in its entirety—that would make it even harder for workers to hold their employers accountable.
AB 594: A Turning Point in Worker Justice and Accountability
Against this backdrop, the Legislature made a bold move in 2023 to safeguard worker rights and combat wage theft when it enacted Assembly Bill 594 (AB 594). This groundbreaking law, which becomes effective January 1, 2024, empowers public prosecutors to pursue civil or criminal actions against employers who violate labor laws, marking a pivotal moment in the fight for worker justice.
This expansion of enforcement power brings the full weight of the legal system to bear on employers who violate worker rights, deterring future transgressions and ensuring that workers receive the protections they deserve.
The enactment of AB 594 has been hailed as a major victory for worker advocates and a significant step forward in combating wage theft. The law’s impact is already being felt, as public prosecutors across California are actively investigating and prosecuting labor code violations.
Empowering California Workers: The Impact of AB 594
Hopefully, AB 594 will serve as a powerful deterrent to employers who might consider engaging in unscrupulous practices. The prospect of facing civil or criminal penalties, coupled with the potential for reputational damage, sends a clear message that wage theft and other labor law violations will not be tolerated. For workers in California, AB 594 represents a beacon of hope. It offers a renewed sense of empowerment and protection, ensuring that they have a voice and a means to hold their employers accountable for violations of their rights.At Valerian Law, we have an in-depth understanding of the laws designed to protect employees against illegal work situations, such as wage theft, misclassification, unequal pay, unsafe workplaces, retaliation, and discrimination. We are here to help with all your employee rights questions and needs. Call our office: 888.686.1918