Just Enforcement Will Empower Workers to Enforce Their Rights
by Sarah Kowaleski, JwJ Coalition Organizer
All workers should be able to entrust that their rights will be protected and that the state will enforce laws meant to protect them. Throughout the pandemic, state agencies received record numbers of reports of workplace abuse and health and safety violations. During 2020, OR OSHA received complaints from 23 of the 35 largest workplace COVID outbreaks but were only able to investigate two. OR OSHA received ten times as many complaints as they do in a normal year.
Essential workers have made life-saving sacrifices and keep us nourished, cared for, and safe. Yet mortality rates for jobs in the food and agriculture industries, disproportionately immigrant workers, have jumped nearly 40% during the pandemic. When frontline and essential workers work in industries which have seen the most widespread workplace outbreaks of COVID-19, robust safety enforcement is essential to public health for our entire community.
Essential and immigrant workers also disproportionately labor for low wages and face wage theft. That is, they are cheated out of their pay by bad bosses. Despite hundreds of claims of stolen wages filed every year, employers only pay penalties in 1% of claims determined to be valid. As a result, lawbreaking employers have little incentive to do the right thing. When labor laws are poorly enforced, workers, especially the most marginalized, lose confidence that the system will protect them. This tailspin drives workers into dire circumstances and disadvantages honest businesses who play by the rules. It is precisely the communities with the least means, and who face the most structural and language barriers to collective organization whose rights have been heartlessly disregarded.
Because it’s clear that the state lacks the capacity to enforce existing labor law, the legislature should enact the Just Enforcement Act (House Bill 2205). This legislation allows workers and organizations to enforce labor laws when the state cannot do so. Providing an avenue for workers to partner with trusted community organizations to file suits on the state’s behalf would empower workers to speak out without fear of retaliation or losing their jobs. Workers recover 30-40% of the civil penalties collected from bosses who break the rules, and the state agency would reinvest the remainder to expand investigative staff and conduct community outreach. Workers and advocates will be empowered, more violations will be caught, and a culture of compliance will create better working conditions for all.
Jobs with Justice is dedicated to protecting the rights of working people and this landmark legislation will make workplaces more safe and just. Our community must demand that legislators support House Bill 2205, Just Enforcement Act, in defense of all workers’ rights.