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Report

Power in partnership: How government agencies and community partners are joining forces to fight wage theft

06/8/2023

In the face of widespread wage violations and limited resources, some labor enforcement agencies have created community enforcement programs to bolster their reach and improve effectiveness. Such programs have been implemented at the federal, state, and local levels. In these programs, worker and community-based organizations (CBOs) receive public funding to assist labor agencies in a range of functions, including most often providing education and outreach to marginalized worker communities and referring cases to enforcement agencies.

This report is a joint project of the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School.

This report:

  • Explains the concept of community enforcement programs
  • Reviews the policy rationales for such programs, both for government enforcement agencies and for worker organizations/workers
  • Explores existing and potential roles that community organizations can play in relation to labor standards enforcement
  • Identifies decision points for designing publicly funded community enforcement programs
  • Explores additional methods to ensure worker input into enforcement operations and policymaking
  • Identifies potential public funding sources for community enforcement programs
  • Identifies areas for further research
  • Provides snapshots of a number of existing programs (Appendix A)
  • Provides links to sample Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and other program materials from various jurisdictions (Appendix B)

Policy rationale underlying community enforcement programs: Community enforcement programs bring myriad benefits to government agencies and to worker organizations and to workers.

Benefits to government enforcement agencies from these programs include the following, among other things:

  • CBOs help reach vulnerable workers who may be difficult for government to reach, often including marginalized workers experiencing serious labor violations. Such workers often face considerable barriers in reporting labor violations, and CBOs’ relationship of trust in communities enables them to serve as a bridge for many workers.
  • CBOs can educate a wide range of workers about their rights; CBOs’ language skills and cultural competency often enable them to reach a wide range of worker populations, in many instances far more than government can readily reach. As a local labor standards agency observed, community partners allow the agency to achieve “outreach in different languages, industries, and communities beyond what our internal staff could achieve.”
  • CBOs can assist in practical, tangible ways in relation to ongoing investigations, such as keeping in touch with worker witnesses who move, answering worker inquiries about case status, and locating workers owed restitution.
  • Some CBOs have specialized knowledge about particular industries, their business models, and their methods of violating the law; this specialized knowledge can inform strategic enforcement initiatives or identify potential targets.
  • CBO involvement in helping refer or navigate cases can identify areas for needed improvements in agency protocols or operations.
  • Inside/outside relations between CBOs and agencies can help broaden the pool of strong candidates for government enforcement positions.
  • Overall, formal partnerships with worker organizations can significantly enhance government labor enforcement agencies’ ability to inform workers of their rights, assist workers in pursuing legal claims, design effective interventions in high-violation industries, monitor workplaces for compliance, and implement case resolutions.

Benefits to CBOs and worker organizations from these programs include the following, among other things:

  • Funding from and participation in programs helps build the capacity of worker organizations.
  • Programs help CBOs better serve their members and constituencies, by helping them gain access to government services and address employer violations.
  • Community enforcement programs enable CBOs to develop ongoing relationships with government agencies and officials.
  • CBOs gain knowledge about and insight into government labor standards enforcement.
  • Programs can provide CBOs with a vehicle for providing feedback to an agency and having more meaningful input into protocols, policies, and procedures.
  • The partnership and relationship with government agencies provides CBOs with added credibility among workers, in the community, and with employers.
  • Such programs help build worker leadership and help promote worker voices within government and in public policy.

In addition, a largely unexplored but noteworthy benefit of community enforcement programs involves the civic engagement and participation it fosters, particularly among low-income working people who are often less represented in civic engagement programs. 

Existing and potential roles for CBOs. Most frequently, CBO participants have provided outreach and education to workers, especially immigrant workers or workers in marginalized communities who may be unlikely to know their rights or may face obstacles in reporting violations to government agencies. CBO participants have commonly also referred violations or assisted workers in referring violations to agencies. CBOs could also potentially play a range of other roles, most of which have been tried in some format, including a “navigator” function assisting workers through wage claim processes; collaborating on strategy in relation to high-violation industries; assisting with collection and/or distribution of restitution; and more. The appropriate role(s) for CBOs may vary depending on the agency’s needs and the capacities and interests of organizational partners.

Program design considerations. ;In addition to the primary question regarding the CBO’s role in the program, several other decisions must be made. Reviewing the many community enforcement programs that cities, states, and the federal government have launched, this report identifies key decision points that agencies and community organizations should consider when launching or updating such programs. Several key recommendations are as follows:

  • Where possible, labor enforcement agencies should consider streamlining the process for bidding on contracts or applying for grants, in light of limited administrative capacity within CBOs.
  • For the same reason, agencies should consider streamlining CBO reporting activities, while still ensuring the oversight required as a steward of public resources.
  • Dedicated agency staff may help the agency implement, sustain, and reap the benefits of the community partnership.
  • Enforcement agencies and CBO participants should develop clear mechanisms for ongoing scheduled meeting and communication between agency and CBO staff.
  • Funding levels for community enforcement programs should accurately reflect the full range of activities expected of the organizations (including documentation of these activities), livable wages for CBO staff, and the value of organizations’ longstanding efforts to build the relationships of trust with community members that are the linchpin of such programs.

Additional methods to ensure worker voice in relation to labor matters. While community enforcement programs can help provide workers with input and agencies with feedback regarding enforcement policies, they do not necessarily ensure meaningful worker input into enforcement priorities or broader labor policy matters in a given jurisdiction. Worker boards and advisory councils are two ways to achieve these goals:

  • Some localities, such as Seattle, Durham (North Carolina), Detroit, and Harris County (Texas), have created (by statute) boards or councils to provide workers with a formal role and/or access to local government, independent of funded community enforcement programs. Some are industry-specific; others have broader scope. They may hold hearings, issue reports, educate the public, and make recommendations for reform, among other things, of laws or enforcement processes. These structures create a vehicle for institutionalizing worker input and voice into local government deliberations.
  • Some enforcement agencies have created advisory councils comprised of representatives of worker organizations, with routine scheduled meetings to ensure communication, two-sided information flow, and input by worker organizations.

Potential sources for public funding for community enforcement programs. Public funding for community enforcement partnerships is appropriate because participating CBOs perform a function needed by government to fulfill its mission of enforcing workplace laws. Public funding for community enforcement programs has most often been resourced through budget allocations. There is also precedent for using penalties collected from lawbreaking employers for enforcement purposes; this is another possible source. Numerous previously unexplored public funding options exist as well, including district attorney forfeiture funds, as well as interest on (or a revolving portion of) unclaimed wages. Philanthropic support can also be crucial to seed community enforcement programs or supplement public funding.

Areas for further research. Further research could analyze the impact of community enforcement programs in reaching a broader range of marginalized and vulnerable workers; improving agency functioning through feedback loops; deterring employer violations; and/or increasing civic engagement and leadership among marginalized communities.

The report concludes by noting the importance of multiple strategies to make legal protections meaningful for all workers, including, perhaps most importantly, increased and sufficient funding for government staff to enforce workplace protections. Other urgent needs include a strategic approach to prioritizing enforcement resources, as well as meaningful penalties for employers who have violated the law. Community enforcement partnerships can successfully dismantle many barriers that impede worker reports of violations, but they cannot on their own create a culture of broad employer compliance with labor standards. While they are a valuable and important element of strategic labor enforcement, partnerships cannot and should not substitute for robust, strategic, and aggressive enforcement of core workplace rights by a fully staffed corps of trained career government investigators.

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