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San Diego County creates labor office to protect workplace pay and safety standards



In a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Jim Desmond voting no, the board approved a plan to create an Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement.

“The COVID-19 pandemic I believe has highlighted the need for robust worker protections for essential workers,” Board Chair Nathan Fletcher said. “During the pandemic these workers kept showing up, putting themselves at risk to keep our economy going and while COVID-19 has brought worker issues to the forefront these issues are not new.”

Although state and federal agencies typically handle employment complaints, Fletcher said the county needs a local office to help workers navigate confusing complaint processes, and provide information about workplace standards for both employees and employers.

Desmond said he objected to the office because it would duplicate tasks the state and federal government are already charged with handling.

“This is, in my opinion, a state and federal responsibility and not something the county should be expending dollars on enforcing,” Desmond said. “Most complaints are directed to an overburdened state workers office. If anything we should be pushing the state to better respond to their own responsibility.”

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said workers need a local resource to deal with the specific challenges of San Diego, where low-wage employees contend with a high-cost housing market, with little recourse against workplace abuses.

“This is so incredibly important,” she said. “It’s an idea that’s overdue. It’s just a great injustice to imagine working minimum wage, and then your wages are stolen.”

Fletcher said the pandemic has taken a high toll on essential workers and exposed the risks they face on the job. In the board letter, he stated that his office heard from employees who experienced retaliation for making workplace complaints. In some instances, he said, they received calls from workers who had tested positive for COVID-19, but whose employers told them it was safe to come to work if they wore a mask.

“Essential workers needed to bring home a paycheck but had limited opportunities,” he said. “My office heard directly from community partners and individuals about workers who continued going to work under unsafe conditions, in locations that were not following public health guidelines, or for employers who refused to pay full wages or honor mandated sick time.”

Fletcher said the county convened a Workplace Justice Advisory Group with District Attorney Summer Stephan, who has stepped up enforcement of wage theft, human trafficking and other criminal labor violations. The county office, he said, would complement that effort.

“Not all worker issues rise to the level of necessitating criminal prosecution, but we see this new office as working in partnership with our DA to ensure that our workers are treated fairly and have access to help and assistance,” Flecher said.

The office would serve as a central location for information and resources for San Diego workers, collecting data on regional workplace issues, reporting annually on that research and making policy recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. READ MORE