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Encore: Californians are waiting for their wage theft claims to be investigated

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

People across the U.S. have billions of dollars stolen from them each year by their employers. It's called wage theft. California's working on a plan to help, but workers often face long delays when it comes to recovering some of the money. From member station KQED, Farida Jhabvala Romero reports.

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: Sitting at a park in Oakland, Mirna Ayana (ph) unfolds documents from the California Labor Commissioner's Office.

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JHABVALA ROMERO: Her claim is for tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages.

MIRNA AYANA: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: She says she cleaned offices during 12-hour days, six days a week.

AYANA: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: But the small janitorial company she worked for didn't pay her for half of that or overtime. Ayana plucked up the courage to complain with the state. It took more than three years before she got a hearing to resolve her case.

AYANA: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: In the years she waited, she says her family had to move several times. They couldn't afford the rent. Her former employer did not respond to requests for comment. State law says that hearings must be held within four months of a wage claim being filed. That's not happening. California workers waited more than two years, on average. Daniel Yu, an assistant chief at the Labor Commissioner, acknowledges the delays are unacceptable.

DANIEL YU: We want to make sure that the process works effectively and efficiently so that the workers...

JHABVALA ROMERO: When the pandemic started, the Labor Commissioner halted in-person hearings. Now they're trying to catch up, but they have a shortage of staff.

YU: The hiring of our hearing officers remains a top priority.

JHABVALA ROMERO: California has more than 35,000 pending wage claims. Nearly half have been languishing a year or longer, without a resolution. Veronica Chavez is a workers' rights attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland. She says these delays hurt vulnerable workers.

VERONICA CHAVEZ: This almost encourages employers to continue exploiting, you know? The chances of there being repercussions seem to be very long, far down the line.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Labor enforcement agencies across the country are struggling with backlogs and understaffing, says Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University.

JANICE FINE: It's a very problematic system as it exists right now because there are many things about it that are not as effective as they need to be.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Back at the playground in Oakland...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: Mirna Ayana tells her 3-year-old son it's time to go home.

AYANA: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: She finally got her hearing. It seemed like good news when the Labor Commissioner ruled that her old boss owes her nearly $183,000 in back wages and penalties. But by then, the company had filed for bankruptcy, she says.

AYANA: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: She says her employer still owes her what she earned, but she doesn't know when - or if - she'll see any of that money.

For NPR News, I'm Farida Jhabvala Romero. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Farida Jhabvala Romero