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San Diego County kicks off a week honoring Cesar Chavez by sharing progress against wage theft

The County is honoring the late labor rights leader Cesar Chavez by kicking off a week of action. Today, county and state officials gave an update on the progress against wage theft in the past year. KPBS reporter Alexander Nguyen was there and has this story.

In front of the San Diego County Administration Building, choking back tears and her voice trembling, Sandra Cruz recounted her ordeal with wage theft.

She was cleaning short-term rentals for a company, but that company never paid her, despite several assurances that it would do so.

It was $200, but Cruz said that money can make a difference in workers' lives.


"But they don't know whether that day when I went to work whether or not I had money to put gas so I can go to work," she said. "They don’t know that."

The event on Tuesday was held to honor the late labor rights leader Cesar Chavez. County and state officials were there to give an update on the progress made against wage theft in the past year.

Between 2018 and 2022, the county received nearly 15,000 wage theft claims. In that same time frame, San Diego Superior Court ordered nearly $20 million to be paid back to workers. How much of that money was returned is unclear.

San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said wage theft hurts more than just the workers involved. It also hurts other businesses as well as taxpayers. She said when workers can't afford to pay for health care, they seek public health benefits.

"(When) workers who are getting cheated out of their wages and they can't pay for rent. They can't help buy groceries. It hurts our entire local economy," Lawson-Remer said. "It contributes to homelessness.”


Cruz filed a complaint. But her employer was long gone. She eventually got her money through the Workplace Justice Fund Program.

The county approved the funding for the program last May through the Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement (OLSE) and was launched last December.

"In just three short months, OLSE has exhausted the $100,000 funds,” Lawson-Remer said.

It’s the first program in the country to pay up to $3,000 to workers who have won legal judgments against their employers. Cruz was one of 35 people helped by the program.

Since the OLSE started in 2021, the office has served 30,000 people, Lawson-Remer said.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said her office takes cases of wage theft seriously because it often leads to other crimes.

“Wage theft and those abuses escalate to the point of being one of the most serious human rights violations of labor trafficking," she said. "That's when you add force, fraud and coercion to the wage theft and the wage abuses.”

Those who experience wage theft can visit to file a claim or call (866) 402-6044 for assistance, regardless of immigration status.