Wage theft demonstration

Service Employees International Union members and supporters demonstrate against wage theft by employers in a downtown Sacramento office building housing the California Chamber of Commerce. (SEIU / Robert Durell / April 23, 2014)

SACRAMENTO -- Nearly 100 chanting and placard-waving union members marched to a downtown Sacramento office tower in a staged and futile attempt to serve a $240 million bill on the California Chamber of Commerce.

The "invoice," union officials said, represented the amount of unpaid wages awarded by the state labor commissioner's office to workers that went uncollected from 2008 to 2011.

The Service Employees International Union is sponsoring a bill aimed at preventing so-called wage theft. It's scheduled for a first hearing and vote Wednesday in the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment. The bill, AB 2415 by Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), would allow an employee under some circumstances to record and enforce a lien on an employer's real and personal property for unpaid wages.

"Under current law, even when employees can prove that their employer denied them compensation for their work, frequently they do not receive their wages," Stone told a boisterous crowd of purple-shirted SEIU members at a rally near the Capitol.

Stone's bill is vehemently opposed by the California Chamber of Commerce, local chambers and more than two dozen trade groups, representing virtually every sector of the business community, ranging from the state apartment association to the retailers association.

The proposal is likely to be widely abused should it become law, countered Jennifer Barrera, a state chamber lobbyist.

"We have some of the most complicated wage-and-hour laws in the country that create disputes between our labor agency and the courts," she said. "This would allow employees to determine when they are entitled to wages."

Meanwhile, creating a new class of wage liens would unfairly harm employers by preventing them from selling, transferring or getting a loan using their property as collateral.

Supporters of the bill said they're confident of rounding up sufficient votes for passage by the labor committee and the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

The big fight, the union and the chamber agree, is expected in May or June when the bill should reach the floor of the Assembly. A similar measure died there last January.

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