01 Mar Oregon lawmakers hear from workers and business owners in support of accountability for employers that violate the law
The Just Enforcement Act, HB 2205, ensures all workers have a voice in the workplace and holds employers accountable for health and safety abuses and other workplace violations
Salem, Ore. – Workers and business owners testified before the House Subcommittee on Civil Law on Wednesday afternoon in support of legislation that would empower workers to take action when employers violate the law.
The Just Enforcement Act, HB 2205, enables workers to sue for penalties on behalf of the state when public agencies lack the capacity to take on the case. The Act will also strengthen Oregon’s ability to enforce workplace regulations by generating new resources and expanding capacity for enforcement agencies.
“Each and every worker in Oregon deserves to be treated fairly no matter where they work,” said PCUN Executive Director Reyna Lopez. “Too often, when workers are harmed by wage theft, sexual harassment, or safety violations, state enforcement agencies lack the resources to enforce regulations and protect worker safety. When employers aren’t held accountable for breaking the law, we all lose.”
Wage theft is a widespread problem in Oregon
According to recent research from the Oregon Center for Public Policy, wage theft is a widespread problem in Oregon. Most at risk are workers who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, or a person of color; women; immigrants; and workers earning a low-wage, all of whom are significantly more likely to experience abuse in the workplace. As Oregon’s workforce has grown and reports of abuse have flooded state agencies, budget cuts have left harmed workers with little recourse.
“We farmworkers have to put up with this situation to be able to work and support our family,” said Manuel, a farmworker from Salem who was fired after asking his boss for drinking water on a 100-degree day. “If we speak up, we are retaliated against, and OSHA does nothing to change things. I hope the government passes the Remedio Justo Act so that we can enforce the laws when the government does not.”
Wage theft refers to the many ways employers fail to pay workers the wages they have earned, such as failing to pay overtime, requiring people to work off the clock, and stealing tips. It not only harms workers directly, but it also creates a disadvantage for honest businesses that play by the rules and follow the law.
“The Bureau of Labor and Industries cannot be everywhere at once,” said Maurice Rahming, co-owner of O’Neill Construction Group. “As a result, businesses who skirt the law are able to get away with not paying a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. This inevitably puts businesses like mine at a disadvantage. There is a growing need for enforcement of the law that all businesses are to abide by so workers can feel safe on the job.”
State agencies do not have the resources or capacity to address violations
Oregon OSHA received over 20,000 complaints in 2020, a tenfold increase from a typical year. And while Oregon’s overall workforce has doubled since 1977, BOLI staffing has been cut drastically. By 2019, BOLI had just 1.8 employees devoted to investigating wage claims for every 100,000 workers.
Through the Just Enforcement Act, a worker would file a complaint with state enforcement agencies and the agencies would decide if they can take on the case. If they cannot, the worker would have the power to manage the case on the state’s behalf. If a judge finds that the company broke the law, the company will pay penalties. Some of the penalty revenue would be awarded to the workers, and some would go back to the state agencies, expanding capacity to ensure workers have protections the law requires.
“The lack of resources to fight wage theft makes for an environment ripe for abuse,” said Janet Bauer, a policy analyst at the Oregon Center for Public Policy. “BOLI seldom penalizes employers for breaking the law, and virtually none pay the fines that are imposed. No wonder wage theft is rampant in Oregon – unscrupulous bosses risk nothing in cheating their workers.”
About Fair Shot for All
Fair Shot for All is an economic justice coalition of grassroots organizations and labor unions working together to build power with our communities, to create opportunities for all working families to thrive, and to dismantle historic and systemic economic inequities for Oregonians who identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color (BIPOC); women; immigrants; and/or LGBTQ+. Fair Shot’s work centers racial and gender equity that seeks to address inequalities through organizing and concrete policy change. Learn more at fairshotoregon.org.