Proposed labor watchdog would give city’s worker protection laws some teeth

Photo by Matt Kiefer

Socorro Guerrero, a member of Arise Chicago, recounts how she and her co-workers were not paid fair wages while working at a dry cleaning business in Chicago. An ordinance to create a new Office of Labor Standards to enforce Chicago's worker protections was introduced at City Hall on April 18, 2018.

A series of recent labor reforms promised to give Chicago workers wage theft protection, boost minimum wages and guarantee paid sick time. But those promises come up empty when it comes to enforcement, workers and labor advocates say.

Enter the Office of Labor Standards, a proposed new City Hall regulatory agency that would have the power to  enforce city labor ordinances, investigate claims, process complaints, issue fines and recommend other penalties. Thirty-five alderman have signed in support of an ordinance establishing the new office.

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At a Wednesday morning press conference, 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar announced a proposed ordinance that would consolidate the city’s labor regulation authorities under the Office of Labor Standards.

“This is the logical conclusion to passing three major progressive policies to protect workers,” Pawar said, referring to the wage theft, minimum wage and sick time ordinances that City Council has approved over the past five years. “Because it doesn’t matter if you pass it if people aren’t receiving those benefits.”

Socorro Guerrero worked at a dry cleaner where workers were paid flat rates regardless of the number of hours they put in. Employees feared they would lose their jobs if they complained.

“We need an office dedicated to taking reports from workers like me and looking into companies who systematically steal wages,” Guerrero, a member of the labor advocacy group Arise Chicago, recounted in Spanish through a translator at today’s press conference. “When workers like me know the city has our back, we will feel safer to come forward.”

Arise Chicago, which campaigned for the labor standards office, reported that women, immigrants and people of color suffer the highest rates of wage theft and worker abuse. Retail, food service and hospitality jobs have generated a significant share of complaints to City Hall, with recent high-profile cases including the Little Village Car Wash that was found to have ripped off workers $130,000 in hourly wages and overtime and service workers who report routine wage theft at O’Hare and Midway airports.

2017 Chicago Reporter investigation found the Chicago’s 2015 minimum wage ordinance was riddled with exemptions and rarely enforced by the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. In the first 18 months after the ordinance took effect, the department had received 454 complaints, investigated 112 of them and recovered wages for 51 workers, the Reporter found after reviewing complaint records.

As proposed, the Officer of Labor Standards would be responsible for collecting complaints without identifying workers to their employers. Unless the worker and employer agree to settle the case, the office would be required to complete investigations within 60 days. A business found in violation would be liable for unpaid wages and fines, and would become ineligible to bid on city contracts for one year. Those with “willful” or repeat violations could have their business licenses revoked.

Aldermen said they modeled the proposed labor standards office after similar municipal agencies in Seattle, New York and San Francisco.

They added that they will work with the mayor’s office to allocate funding for the office, which would include a director (appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council) and an unspecified number of investigators and lawyers. Part of the office’s funding would come from fines levied on businesses found in violation of city ordinances, though proceeds would also support community-based outreach programs to inform workers and employers of protections under city law.

The office would also research and identify industries and worker groups that are historically fraught with labor violations and do proactive outreach and investigations where needed, according to the draft ordinance.

The Office of Labor Standards would publish data on complaints handled by the office, including a list of employers under investigation, outcomes and amounts collected from judgments.

Chicago’s non-tipped minimum wage currently stands at $11 an hour and will increase to $13 by 2019. Workers are guaranteed up to five sick days per year.

The Office of Labor Standards ordinance was introduced at the April 18 council meeting and will next go to committee hearings before a full council vote.