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Sen. Maria Elena Durazo. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

Garment Workers Would Receive Expanded Worker Rights Under New Bill

SB 1399 would expand wage theft liability for garment workers in California

By Evan Symon, May 19, 2020 2:05 pm

On Monday, the Senate Committee on Labor, Public Employment, and Retirement confirmed that a law expanding wage theft liability to garment workers had been passed last week.

Possible big changes to the garment industry in California

Senate Bill 1399, written by Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), would expand the definition of ‘garment worker’ to include tailors, clothes dyers, and those that physically add labels to the garments. Piece-pay rates would also be eliminated in favor of an hourly wage.

Under SB 1399, liability for legal issues in garment worker cases would not just solely the garment company, but the company contracting workers as well. Both the company and contractor would also be jointly responsible to ‘guarantee the payment of unpaid minimum wages, overtime pay, break premiums, and other damages, penalties’ and other wage theft occurrences, as well as provide information for any unemployment cases.

In addition, SB 1399, also known as the Garment Worker Protection Act, the California Labor Commissioner would help guarantee any claims made by workers, would help enforce ‘wage theft’ laws and help employees maintain a ‘right of action’ when wronged at work. The Labor Commissioner’s Bureau of Field Enforcement would issue fines and citations of any wrong-doing as well.

Companies and Contractors themselves would also need to keep employee records for three years in case of any legalities.

Senator Durazo authored the bill as there are many garment workers in her LA district. A large number of wage theft issues have come up there and elsewhere in California over the years, and as a former organizer and executive of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (later renamed the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, or UNITE), she pushed forward SB 1399.

SB 1399 and garment worker protections

Other supporters explained the issue more in depth.

“These are the workers largely behind the scenes changing up and repairing clothing,” noted Angelica Cardenas, a former garment worker in Los Angeles who now assists in data gathering about the industry. “Most of these workers are immigrant women, but they never had the full protections other industries had. Stores and companies would put the blame on contractors when anything went wrong with pay, and as a result many workers ultimately lost money.”

“At one of the stores I worked at, it was common for our contractor to invoice the store for a certain amount, only for the store to come back with a question of hours or something. Then, without our input, they shaved off the number of shirts or dresses we worked on that week, or only counted some as ‘half’ to lower the numbers. We’d lose a lot this way. It’s very much wrong, but we had little recourse.”

“With SB 1399, now employees have that recourse. No one is demanding on say, a union or a huge walk-out or anything. We just want to have the same recourse as any other employee does. We want the same protections and we want how much we make to be guaranteed. SB 1399 does that.”

Supporters, which include garment workers, unions, and some industry companies, also note that SB 1399 closes many loopholes left open in a previous garment worker law, AB 633, which was passed and signed into law by former Governor Gray Davis in 1999.

While there is opposition building against SB 1399, most notably from the affected industries, no politicians have taken a stance against it as of yet. During the vote last week in committee, no Senator voted against it, as it passed 4 to 0 with one abstention.

Some in the industry have questioned moving away from the piece pay system in that it would largely slow down output, while others questioned the need for companies and contractors to be jointly responsible for wage theft scenarios when only the contractors are physically paying workers.

Greater opposition, including lawmakers making a stance on the issue, is expected should the bill make it to the Senate floor.

SB 1399 will next be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Currently, there is no set date for the hearing.

Evan Symon
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