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Enforcing Employment Laws

Federal and state enforcement of employment law has been scaled back dramatically over the past three decades in the face of tightening budgets and outright hostility toward workers’ rights from some elected officials. Furthermore, the working world has changed enormously since most of the employment law enforcement apparatus was created 50 or more years ago, and traditional means of enforcing workplace law are less and less effective.


Very few workers, and even fewer low-wage or immigrant workers, have the time, money, or wherewithal to pursue legal remedies against unscrupulous employers in small-claims court. As a result, low-road employers have come to see obeying employment law as optional. They rob workers of not only their employment rights, but also their civil and human rights.


The scale of wage theft in this country is one indication of how flagrantly low-road employers violate even minimal protections for American workers. A 2008 study of nearly 5,000 workers in low-wage industries in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York found an epidemic of workplace law noncompliance: Two-thirds of the workers surveyed reported at least one pay-related violation the previous week, including more than a quarter who had been paid less than the statutory minimum wage. A new report from Houston suggests wage theft amounts to $750 million per year in that city alone.


Unfortunately, inaction in most states has left cities and counties as the only viable options for strengthening workplace laws and providing this critical worker protection. With this in mind, cities and counties should pass comprehensive wage-theft ordinances containing the following elements:


  • The classification of wage theft—the failure to pay agreed upon or legally mandated wages in a reasonable time period—as a violation that entitles the employee to back pay and compensatory damages.
  • A straightforward process for filing and investigating wage-theft claims, including appropriate funding for the designated office.
  • Real costs or penalties to employers for violating the law that go beyond merely the payment of wages owed. (The Miami-Dade County ordinance allows employees to collect triple damages from violating employers and requires violating employers to pay administrative costs.)
  • Lengthening the statute of limitations within which claims can be filed. (New York state allows employees six years to file a claim and suspends the statute of limitations during a wage-theft investigation.)
  • A requirement that city or county license holders comply with all relevant employment law and that licenses of violators be revoked.
  • Late-payment fines and penalties targeting employers chronically late in paying wages. In addition to responding to and investigating complaints, enforcement agencies should affirmatively investigate high-violation industries.
  • Outreach policies and programs that work with existing community groups to reach the most vulnerable workers.


The vast majority of employment law-enforcement authority and schemes rest with federal and state agencies. Unfortunately, at the federal level and in most states, the number of inspectors has not kept up with the growth in or changing nature of employment. In addition, the only local enforcement of wage and employment laws in most cities are the many immigrant and day-worker centers that have helped wage-theft victims identify violations, pursue claims, and report violators to the U.S. Department of Labor. In response, where possible, cities should pass a minimum wage and job-standards ordinance that establishes an enforcement office.

The Top 5 Enforcement Tools for Local Minimum Wage Laws, National Employment Law Project, December 1st, 2015. Read more.

Building Robust Labor Standards Enforcement Regimes in Our Cities and Counties, Haeyoung Yoon and Tsedeye Gebreselassie , National Employment Law Project, March 1st, 2015. Read more.

Ending Wage Theft, Local Progress, September 1st, 2013. Read more.

Cities and Jobs: Local Strategies for Improving Job Quality and Access, Center on Wisconsin Strategy, June 12th, 2007. Read more.

Workers Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, Janice Fine, Economic Policy Institute, February 1st, 2006. Read more.

The movement to prevent wage theft has been gaining momentum in the past few years. Several cities and counties have passed model wage theft ordinances, including San Francisco, Miami-Dade County, FL, and Kansas City, MO. Other cities with wage theft ordinances include:

To increase transparency in labor standards enforcement, Seattle and San Francisco have created online dashboards tracking both infractions and city actions against violators.


Denver has taken steps to support day laborers, who often experience wage theft and other labor violations.


Ceri Jenkins
Read more about enforcing employment laws for your city in our report Cities at Work: Progressive Local Policies to Rebuild the Middle Class.