Wage theft claims are rising again in San Diego, but prosecutions are rare
Wage theft, when employers withhold wages or other benefits from employees, is widespread in San Diego County and on the rise again after a pandemic dip, according to experts and data from the state labor department.
Despite those trends, a new law enacted a year ago to make it easier to prosecute wage theft has not led to a single prosecution of wage theft in the county so far, though the county prosecutor’s office said that’s because the law is still new.
And laws that existed previously have also had little effect. In all of 2022, the San Diego County District Attorney's Office prosecuted just one case of wage theft, using a grand theft statute, not the new law, according to Tanya Sierra, public affairs officer for the office.
Workers seeking accountability from employers – and to recover stolen wages — can file claims with the California Department of Industrial Relations, the agency tasked with overseeing workplaces and safeguarding employee rights. And the numbers of those claims are going up.
Workers filed more than 3,000 claims of wage theft with the Labor Commissioner’s Office in San Diego. That’s higher than the previous two years, when claims reached about 1,900 in 2021 and 2,800 in 2020. In pre-pandemic years, wage theft claims in San Diego County reached well beyond 3,000.
Studies show wage theft disproportionately impacts immigrants, women and people of color who tend to be overrepresented in low wage industries.
“Wage theft happens because people are vulnerable,” said Kyra Greene, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego.
And too often, Greene added, employers commit wage theft with impunity and working families bear the brunt of the lack of enforcement.
“It changes people's faith in our systems. It is a real crime with real implications for the wellbeing of people and communities in our larger region,” Greene said.
Former California Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who represented the 80th District including Chula Vista and southeast San Diego, introduced the wage theft law as a bill in 2021.
Under the new law, which took effect in January 2022, prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an employer intentionally withheld wages valued more than $950 for one employee or wages valued more than $2,350 for two or more employees.
Since the law gives prosecutors a specific charge for wage theft, it should be easier to prosecute and for victims to recover wages, gratuities and other compensation as restitution.
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Before, counties had to prosecute wage theft under the grand theft penal code, which applied to theft of money or property. The one person convicted for wage theft in 2022 was charged under the older law for grand theft. In that case, the employer pleaded guilty to stealing labor valued more than $950 and was sentenced to a $500 fine and one day in sheriff’s custody.
But the fact that no one has been charged with wage theft yet under the new law shouldn’t sound alarms about the new law’s potential effectiveness, according to Sierra, with the District Attorney’s Office, who blamed timing for a lack of prosecutions.
“It is such a new statute and wage theft cases usually have a delay in reporting,” she said in an email.
The new law only applies to wage theft allegations that occurred after it took effect, and to bring charges under the new law, investigators first would have to wrap up investigations, which take time, Sierra said.
The District Attorney’s Office recently started a Workplace Justice Unit, composed of a prosecutor, investigator and paralegal, dedicated to prosecuting wage theft and labor trafficking. The office touted the team as signaling a new commitment to protecting workers.
“We have always prosecuted wage theft, however, we just didn't have a dedicated unit,” Sierra said.
The punishment for wage theft law carries a maximum of three years in prison of a $10,000 fine.