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UCLA experts share disapproval of the California Fair Pay and Accountability Act

Pictured is the Ueberroth Olympic Office Building, which houses the UCLA Labor Center’s Westwood offices. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Amy Wong

March 13, 2024 7:43 p.m.

Attorneys and UCLA experts expressed disapproval at a ballot initiative that limits California workers’ ability to litigate against their employers.

The Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) is a labor law that provides workers with the resources to litigate against their employers, said Tia Koonse, the legal and policy research manager at the UCLA Labor Center. After the act was challenged by the business industry in the California Supreme Court, the question of whether to repeal it will be on the ballot in November’s general election.

“PAGA is called the Private Attorneys General Act because it lets us (workers) stand in the shoes of the state,” Koonse said. “When you use PAGA, you’re not suing on your behalf, you’re suing as the state, the whole government apparatus. A PAGA case covers your whole workplace, all your co-workers, and then it gets penalties that are really, really, really high, much higher than you would be able to get in a regular case on your own.”

In response to the ballot initiative, researchers at the UCLA Labor Center, including Koonse, released a report Feb. 15 that analyzes the consequences of the California Fair Pay and Accountability Act, a ballot measure that, if passed, would eliminate PAGA, and discusses the importance of PAGA.

Yvonne Medrano, an attorney at Bet Tzedek Legal Services and an executive committee member of the Los Angeles Worker Center Network, said she believes the California Fair Pay and Accountability Act will be misleading on the ballot due to its name.

“Propositions have become trickier and trickier, especially when it comes to workers’ rights, and this proposition is a really good example of that because the name,” Medrano said. “It’s going to show up as the California Fair Pay and Accountability Act, which sounds great, right? I think everyone wants workers to get their pay and wants employers to be held liable. But that’s not what this proposition is going to do. … What it’s going to do is eliminate PAGA.”

Victor Narro, a project director at the UCLA Labor Center, said the arguments against PAGA when it was passed in 2003, which included concerns about opening the floodgates of litigation, are the same ones used now. None of these arguments came to fruition, Narro added.

He added that he believes business communities are still thriving in California with the existence of PAGA and that no PAGA claim has been ruled frivolous.

Minsu Longiaru, a senior staff attorney for PowerSwitch Action, which also helped write the report, said the report helps people understand what PAGA is by setting the record straight.

“If you want to make sure California’s rights on paper are real, you need to care about PAGA,” she said.

Without PAGA, if workers experience a wage or safety violation, they have three options, Koonse said.

The first method is to consult a labor code expert and file a claim with the labor commissioner, Koonse said. Around 30,000 people do this a year across the state’s 16 labor commissioner’s offices.

The second method, which can be done anonymously, is for the worker to make a report to the Bureau of Field Enforcement, she said. The unit will then send investigators to the worksite to interview workers and managers and look at payroll data. If they find any wrongdoing, a citation is issued and a fine is split proportionally among workers, Koonse said. The bureau brings about 570 cases a year, less than half of a percent of all the workplaces in California.

The third method is for the worker to sue the employer. Eighty percent of Americans cannot pursue this option because they signed an arbitration clause when they were hired, effectively giving up their right to sue their employer, Koonse added.

Twenty-five percent of the money collected from PAGA civil penalties goes to the worker, and 75% is deposited into the state’s labor and workforce development fund to pay for enforcement activities, Longiaru said. These enforcement activities include paying local and district attorneys to combat wage theft and helping fund community-based work or outreach programs, she added.

Longiaru said she believes the passage of the California Fair Pay and Accountability Act would be detrimental to California workers.

“The repeal of PAGA and the passage of this ballot initiative would be a devastating blow for California workers because we would see a landscape in which workers’ ability to enforce their rights … has been decimated,” Longiaru said. “We would also see the loss of a policy that last year alone raised $209 million for workplace education and enforcement during a time of record budget deficits … The financial loss to the state as well would be devastating.”

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