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CA Controller Jumps on "Wage Theft" Bandwagon

State Controller John Chiang, who is seeking election on November 4 as California State Treasurer, announced a new pilot program on October 23 -- called "Operation Pay-Up" -- to aid victims of putative "wage theft" committed by employers. Working in conjunction with the state Labor Commissioner's Office and non-profit The Wage Justice Center, the Controller's pilot project addresses the growing number of low-income workers who are owed millions of dollars in back wages unlawfully withheld by exploitive businesses. Between 2008 and 2011 alone, the magnitude of the problem was an estimated $390 million.

Working in collaboration with California Labor Commissioner Julie A. Su, the Controller identified a geographically diverse sample of six companies that, following due process review, were found by the Labor Commissioner's Office and the courts to owe wages. They included:

  • All American Pet Company, Inc. (Los Angeles) owing $15,600 in unpaid wages.
  • Fresno Protein Processors, Inc. / Apple Valley Farms, Inc./ Valley Protein, Inc. (Fresno) owing $247, 594.
  • Far East Café LLC /Chop Suey Café (Los Angeles) owing $41,114.
  • Elk Grove Ford (Elk Grove) owing $72,141.
  • Gary Mario Bertolatti / Irish O'Sullivans (Fresno) owing $48,042.
  • Stoneridge Motor, Inc. / Stoneridge Chrysler Jeep Dodge (Dublin) owing $54,309.
However, the first three were found to still be doing business.

Because the amounts identified remain unpaid for longer than the one year provided in the state’s Unclaimed Property Law, those wages are now due and payable to the State Controller's Office, where they are then available to be claimed by the employees who earned them. The businesses were given up to 10 days to respond to the Controller's inquiries and were notified that if they failed to pay the unpaid wages, they would face hefty interest payments that would start from the issue date of the judgment and up to $50,000 in fines for willful refusal to pay.
In 2010, a court ruled Fresno Protein Processors, Inc., failed to pay wages to 59 employees and owes a total of $247,593.84 in wages. After the company ignored a September 2, 2014, letter from the Controller's Office demanding payment, the Controller today filed a complaint to recover the wages in Sacramento Superior Court.

"It was hard and unfair that they let me go without paying me or giving me an explanation - I earned that pay and the company took advantage of many of us," said Noemi Carreño, who worked for five years deboning chicken at the Fresno Protein Processors company and is still owed $5,500. "I am very happy to hear that more is being done to get the company to pay us. This gives me more hope that there are more organizations fighting for us, because now, more than ever, I cannot lose hope."

"When employers like Fresno Protein Processors cheat workers, it undermines our entire economy," said California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski. "Wage theft hurts not just workers, but responsible businesses that are playing by the rules. It hurts our middle class. It's an affront to justice. We're very fortunate to have strong, creative leaders like Controller Chiang who are willing to go the extra mile to help workers in need and hold unscrupulous companies to account."

"Employees who file wage claims and prove what they're owed have already been denied their fundamental right to be paid a just day's pay for a hard day's work,” said Labor Commissioner Julie A. Su.  "Controller Chiang's Operation Pay-Up is exactly the kind of creative approach to cracking down on scofflaws and getting wages into workers’ pockets that we need. My office is proud to be his partner in the fight against wage theft."