Compliance and the Complaint Gap: Labor Standards Violations in the California Service Sector

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This report aims to illuminate the state of compliance with California’s core labor standards and the opportunities and barriers to make them real for the majority of workers they cover.

California can justifiably take pride in the protections and rights that state laws afford workers. Workers are assured some of the highest minimum wage standards in the nation. In California, overtime standards are also higher, as workers receive premium wages not only when working more than 40 hours a week, but also when working more than 8 hours in a day. Golden State workers also were some of the first to receive paid sick leave coverage and assurances that they would be compensated for rest and break time in contrast to those in other states.

The benefits and protections of laws setting standards for work, however, matter little to the workers they seek to protect if they are not followed. The implementation of laws—best measured in terms of compliance by the employers to whom they are directed— matter as much as the standards themselves. Implementation requires adequately resourced agencies to enforce them and their effective and systematic administration by experienced government personnel. But laws also require that workers know about their protections and rights. Even more, it requires that they feel empowered to exercise their rights in the face of violations—and that they do not fear retaliation for using them. All too often, the workers who face the most troubling conditions at work that often lead to passage of laws are the same ones who are most fearful of using them and lack the protections of labor unions and other worker advocates.

This report examines whether the rights and protections in law line up with the daily experiences of workers with respect to core labor standards. It does so by directly surveying 980 California workers, employed at 98 of the largest firms in the service sector, about their experiences with respect to pay, hours of work, access to leave and compensation for breaks, as well as an additional sample of 74 similar but recently unemployed workers. The Shift Project research team fielded these surveys between January 2024 and March 2024 using survey methods they have developed and validated over the past eight years. Further details on the research methodology is included in an Appendix. 

By asking workers about their direct experience with pay, hours, leave, or breaks and then checking those responses against what the law requires, we can gauge the prevalence and the severity of violations in a direct way. This allows us to examine whether the laws on the books translate into what people actually experience at work. 

This approach provides a more direct measure of compliance than solely relying on administrative data of enforcement agencies, which will be skewed towards workers and workplaces targeted for investigations due to complaints or programmatic targeting. It also allows us to probe into a wider array of questions related to potential violations of the law than is typically possible using household or business establishment survey data. 

Worker surveys also provide additional insight into the critical question of implementation: whether those who experience violations of the law decide to take action to address those violations. Workers may experience violations and not act because they are unaware of their rights or protections. But they might also be aware of their rights and still not choose to act as a result of not knowing how to do so; from an absence of agents to help them act—or protect them from retaliation—such as labor unions or worker centers; from skepticism that anything can be done to remedy the violation; or some combination of the above. Even more, they may choose not to act because of fear of reprisal by their employer— whether in the form of reassignment, docking of pay or hours, threats in relation to immigration status, or firing. Insight into when workers choose to act —or choose not to—when faced with violations is therefore critical to assuring attainment of the goals of labor and employment laws. 

Read the full report here.