Governor Schwarzenegger Vetoes Bills Protecting Hourly Workers

If you've ever been an hourly-paid employee -- which most people have at least once in their life, especially during their college career -- then you know how hard it is. The work requires you to not only happily, continuously perform the duties associated with that hourly position (long hours on your feet, crazy customers, weekend work, etc.), but also to make ends meet and juggle your crazy life schedule with your work schedule, while living on the hourly wages.

Hourly workers are everywhere. Think about all the people you know or come into contact with on a daily basis that are slaves to the hourly wage: those who work in retail, waitstaff, temps in offices, manual labor, your favorite barista at Starbucks, or seasonal employees, like the guys helping you load your pumpkins into your car in the fall or selling Christmas trees. These are often some of the most prevalent and essential positions in today's work force that keep our communities and businesses running smoothly; but they are also often the jobs that fewer people compete for, making them seem less desirable and valuable.

Bad news in California

Unfortunately, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger just had the opportunity to throw a bone to these types of employees -- and he chose to pass, making it even tougher now to be an hourly paid employee, and making him live up to his movie-star image of being a "Terminator."

The two bills could have helped employees who earn their money through hourly work, by making it a misdemeanor crime for employers that fail to pay all wages within 90 days after a worker leaves, and by increasing the maximum amount of damages that a worker could be awarded in a wage-related legal dispute or state enforcement action.

Though both bills seem to reinforce the common-sense concept of getting paid for services rendered, Schwarzenegger said in his veto messages that the bills were not needed, because similar laws are already on the books.

The importance of this type of bill

The issues that these bills sought to address came to light as a result of a UCLA study that found that wage theft costs in the state of California have risen to as much as $26 million a week. The survey, which was part of a national project, found that "workers who experienced some type of wage theft lost an average of about $40 from typical weekly earnings of $318 (about 12.5 percent). Much of the wage loss came from employers paying less than the state-mandated minimum wage of $8 an hour," reported the Los Angeles Times

California is a large state, and when workplace precedents like these are established, it sends a message to other states and has a ripple effect across the nation, ultimately influencing workers' rights everywhere.

Disadvantages of being an hourly worker

Hourly worker Robert Pezzulo said the governor's veto is a shame, "because hourly employees take lots of risks to remain employed -- the biggest risk being that the employer can terminate the arrangement at any time and without much notice. Especially in a slumping economy, being notified that you are out of work can be traumatic, since finding another position can be challenging."

In addition to not always being eligible for vacation time, medical coverage or other benefits such as retirement plans, hourly employees are the first ones to have their hours cut back at the company's will, making them the most disposable employees and the least protected.

The only recourse an hourly employee has in this situation is to take the employer to small claims court, which, Pezzulo points out, is costly for the employee and only "enables employers to continue these practices, as it is unlikely that an hourly employee will spend perhaps as much money in legal fees as they are seeking for back pay. Meanwhile many larger employers have legal professionals on staff, ready to handle these types of situations."

For example, Pezzulo had a colleague that had three months of pay held by his employer because he gave them his two-week notice that he was joining another company. The cost of hiring a legal professional and the time that would need to be taken off from work discouraged him from taking legal action; instead he decided to stop pursuing his employer for back pay.

"I believe it should be a crime if an employer doesn't pay an employee for the work they have done, no matter whether they are with the company or not," said Tracy Corral, publisher and editor of Cycle California Magazine. "They worked in good faith, and the company is obligated to pay them in a timely manner for that work. A person has bills to pay, and why would their company (or former company) need to wait that long (90 days) to pay that person for work they have done?"

Sadly it is getting harder and harder to get paid for services rendered in this economic climate, says a freelance writer who wishes to remain nameless. She said that it took her over a year to collect the back pay that was owed from one publication she worked for. "Even then, the money was slow to trickle in. Instead of being paid the agreed-upon amount in one lump sum as specified in my contract, I received minute checks every four to six weeks and even that was only after hounding the publisher for the money."

Possible impact of the veto

Corral sees the bills less as providing protection from employers, than making employers responsible for fulfilling their end of the agreement they made with the employee.

The last thing we want to do is open the door to the possibility of employers not paying employees or not paying them minimum wages as required; but Schwarzenegger's veto sends the message that these concerns are not ones he thinks California needs to address, and, "as California goes, eventually, so will the rest of the states," Corral said.

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