Dual Crisis of Wage Theft, Homelessness in Los Angeles Underscores the Need to Strengthen Labor Standards Enforcement

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New Los Angeles Worker Center Network concept paper highlights how wage theft drives housing insecurity and homelessness in LA, pointing to the need for urgent policy action

LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles Worker Center Network (LAWCN), a coalition of nine worker centers and labor organizations, today released its newest publication, a concept paper titled Labor Standards Enforcement Paves the Way for a New LA. The paper highlights the intersections between widespread wage theft, homelessness, and racial inequalities in the Los Angeles region, calling for urgent action. It proposes an innovative policy framework for curbing wage theft to ensure economic safeguards for all low-wage workers as the city prepares for the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Olympics.

“Poverty is the primary driver of homelessness in LA, which is why we cannot simply build ourselves out of the homelessness crisis,” said Tia Koonse, Legal and Policy Manager at the UCLA Labor Center and one of the authors of the paper. “Wage theft significantly depresses income and pushes vulnerable Angelenos to the streets. Many working poor remain housed, but are one paycheck away from homelessness. LA needs housing, a livable wage, and robust labor standards enforcement in order to stem the rising tide of homelessness.”

Los Angeles has long been the wage theft capital of the nation, and in 2022, the city also led the nation in homelessness—making the dual crisis of wage theft and homelessness particularly acute. The LAWCN paper details how the lowest-income Angelenos lose an estimated 12.5% of take-home pay to wage theft every year. A whopping 88% of workers experience a violation, including 80% who work through meal and rest breaks.

Miguel Vazquez, a 44-year-old cook and member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles, has had to contend with both wage theft and homelessness. In 2011, while working as a dishwasher, he suffered a cut to his hand that went untreated for months before he went to the hospital. When he returned, his manager claimed Vazquez owed him money. “He would not pay me the two months’ salary he owed me,” Vazquez said. “He never paid me. I had to sue, but I never knew what came of it.” Things kept getting worse for Vazquez, and in 2016, he ended up on the street. “I would finish my shift and get on the bus and stay there,” Vazquez described. “Sometimes I slept on the beach. I don’t know if all this is a coincidence, or if it’s my destiny.”  

Numerous studies attribute skyrocketing rates of homelessness to increasing costs of living, stagnant wages, a failure of the social safety net, and, above all, a loss of income. Wage theft dramatically compounds this risk for Angelenos, and particularly those of color, women, and immigrants.

“As a female carwasher, or carwashera, and an immigrant, I have been a victim of both wage theft and discrimination,” said long-time carwasher and CLEAN Carwash Worker Center member Patricia Alvarez Solis. “I was also close to losing my home during the pandemic. Wage theft directly impacts my ability to pay the rent and send money back home. Sometimes, I don’t even get paid minimum wage, which is a crime. Workers deserve protections and to get paid what they’ve rightfully earned.”

The COVID-19 pandemic heightened the racial divide in homelessness and unemployment in Los Angeles. Between 2021 and 2022, homelessness among Latinos spiked 26% in the county and 30% in the city. Close to 70% of Black workers who lost their jobs or were furloughed during the pandemic had not been called back to work by 2022. Because poverty is a root problem of homelessness, homelessness cannot be solved through housing alone, the paper concludes.

“We face a generational opportunity for solidarity and coalition-building to create ‘a new LA,’ as our city prepares to take the world stage for the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Olympics,” said Armando Gudiño, Executive Director of LAWCN. “We envision a Los Angeles where residents can afford dignified housing, high-road employers play a valued role in the local economy while violators face strict penalties, and government agencies cut red tape to assist victims of labor violations. LAWCN’s policy recommendations, if adopted by the City, pave the way to make this dream a reality for our communities.” 

Los Angeles can lead the way to smarter labor standards enforcement. LAWCN proposes an innovative policy framework for efficiently and systematically addressing the wage theft crisis in the region. A collaboration between elected officials, enforcement agencies, worker organizations, and local communities is required to carry out meaningful reforms at the city and county level. The concept paper recommends prioritizing unitary enforcement by establishing a one-stop shop for wage theft claims; engaging in effective, strategic enforcement of labor standards; and building a pipeline to quality jobs in labor standards enforcement.

“LA’s garment workers regularly experience wage theft, with two of the most significant impacts being housing and food insecurity. It’s unacceptable that a worker’s labor isn’t compensated fully to allow them to meet their basic needs,” said Marissa Nuncio, Executive Director of the Garment Worker Center. “We fully support a policy at the city level that provides streamlined wage and labor enforcement tools and remedies the financial hardships caused by wage theft.”

LAWCN members include the CLEAN Carwash Worker Center, Garment Worker Center, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, Los Angeles Black Worker Center

Pilipino Workers Center, Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles, Warehouse Worker Resource Center, UCLA Labor Center, and Bet Tzedek Legal Services. Building on the work of the End Wage Theft Coalition, LAWCN has played a critical role in establishing wage theft as an issue at the city, county, and state levels. Learn more at: https://www.laworkercenternetwork.org/wage-theft/