State and local enforcers standing up to protect workers: Misclassifying workers ‘a pattern of deceit’

Series: The New Labor Law Enforcers

State attorneys general, district attorneys, and localities like cities are increasingly key players in protecting workers’ rights. This new series by Terri Gerstein provides snapshots of enforcement and other actions to protect workers’ rights by these new and emerging labor law enforcers at the state and local level. Gerstein is an EPI senior fellow and director of the state and local enforcement project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program, who has chronicled the growing influence of these new enforcers.  

Recent cases brought by state and local enforcers include a host of violations: construction companies engaging in “a pattern of deceit” to misclassify and underpay workers; unsafe working conditions at Amazon; failure to provide paid sick leave; and the chronic problem of employers misusing interns and not paying for their work.

Here’s an snapshot of some enforcement actions across the country:

The D.C. and Virginia Attorneys General suing and prosecuting drywall contractors for misclassifying workers: The DC Attorney General’s Office on October 18 sued a drywall construction contractor, two general contractors, and four subcontractors for misclassifying and underpaying workers on projects including a Georgetown University dormitory and an academic building at George Washington University. The case was unusual in that the AG didn’t just focus on one contractor but went up and down the “chain” of contractors. In a statement, DC Attorney General Karl Racine noted, “Since 2018, these construction companies have engaged in a pattern of deceit, cheating their employees out of their hard-earned wages, and violating their rights. These workers have children to raise, families to feed, and bills to pay, and they deserve the wages and benefits they rightfully earned.” Meanwhile, the new worker protection unit in the Virginia Attorney General’s Office on October 6 announced its first criminal labor case, involving subcontractors who allegedly misclassified workers performing drywall installation in construction of the state General Assembly building.

Minneapolis, Seattle, and the New York State Attorney General enforcing paid sick leave laws: While there is no national paid sick leave law, workers in many parts of the country do have this right, thanks to state and local statutes. For many workers, especially low-wage workers, though, these rights are theoretical unless they are meaningfully enforced, which is why state and local paid sick leave enforcement is critical. In Minneapolis, over two dozen employees of a Jimmy John’s franchise were paid $17,000 in back wages and penalties in September under the city’s paid sick leave law after the city’s Labor Standards Enforcement Division got involved. The agency found that workers at the location had almost no access to paid sick days. The Seattle Office of Labor Standards on September 15 announced that it had recovered more than $290,000 from a cleaning company for paid sick leave and other violations, including not paying for all hours worked, paying subminimum wages, and making unauthorized deductions from workers’ pay for training and other costs. And the New York Attorney General’s Office announced on September 22 that it had recovered $400,000 from a Long Island industrial laundry that illegally fired seven workers and denied paid sick leave to others; the settlement also included reinstatement of five workers who wished to return to the company.

The New York Attorney General and Seattle protecting workers’ rights during the COVID pandemic: Earlier this year, the New York Attorney General sued Amazon in state court over COVID workplace safety issues at a Staten Island warehouse. Days before, Amazon had filed its own lawsuit in federal court against the New York AG, trying to preempt the state’s lawsuit. In October, the New York AG received favorable decisions in both cases: The state court rejected Amazon’s attempt to get the AG’s case dismissed, and the federal court dismissed Amazon’s lawsuit against New York. Meanwhile, the Seattle Office of Labor Standards recovered over $330,000 for around a hundred workers at a wine and alcohol shop who were not paid pandemic-related hazard pay as required by the city’s Grocery Employee Hazard Pay Ordinance. 

Illinois combating race discrimination by temporary agencies. The Illinois Attorney General on October 14 entered into consent decrees with a temp agency and a meatpacking plant where temp workers were placed. The complaint alleged that the agency and plant had engaged in extensive race discrimination, resulting in hundreds of Black workers and job applicants being denied jobs. The AG’s settlement includes payment of $450,000 by the companies, as well as injunctive relief requiring the companies to make efforts to increase the number of Black workers assigned to the plant.

Unpaid interns are owed $400,000 in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office announced on September 16 that it issued a citation, finding that a Boston recording studio owed $400,000 for not paying interns. Massachusetts has rules about the limited circumstances in which interns can be unpaid; there are federal rules on this, too. In this case, the students “principally performed administrative, promotional, and cleaning duties which are ordinarily performed by paid employees.”