SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- A new initiative launched Monday aims to protect vulnerable food service workers from wage theft. Officials in Santa Clara County now have the ability to suspend permits from businesses that refuse to pay employees what they're owed.
"Our goal is not to take away food permits, but rather to help business owners come into compliance by paying their workers what they've actually earned," said Betty Duong, manager of the county's new Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE).
The new 'food permit enforcement program' is one of several efforts that the county is implementing to support vulnerable employees, many of them immigrants, women, and low-wage workers. Services and support will initially be offered in seven languages.
"We must give a voice to these employees," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez. "Helping them collect the wages they are owed, which they earned through hard, honest work and labor, is only one of many steps we are taking to protect their rights."
Common forms of wage theft include non-payment of overtime, not paying for all the hours worked, and/or not paying minimum wage.
"If you don't get the word out about these programs, then people don't know that it's a safe place for them to come, it's a safe place for them to bring their grievances, and that we'll follow-up," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese. "Enforcing wage laws will benefit workers and level the playing field for law-abiding businesses paying their workers what they are due."
Data from the state found that Santa Clara County received the highest number of wage theft claims per capita in California in 2015, which prompted the Board of Supervisors to create the new OLSE, which is only one of eight across the country. The office will work with the county's Department of Environmental Health to help protect workers' rights.
"Our partnership prides another level of protection for foodservice industry workers who may not be able to protect themselves from wage theft," said Michael Balliet, director of the Department of Environmental Health. "These efforts exemplify how the County of Santa Clara looks out for the public, whether a restaurant patron or employee."
According to a recent analysis, retail food vendors in Santa Clara County owe nearly $5 mil. in back wages to employees, based on 1,743 judgments filed between January 2015 and September 2019.
Officials will start enforcing wage theft judgments in Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and two central zip codes in San Jose, before expanding to the rest of the county.
"Running a good business means treating both your workers and your customers with dignity and respect," said Duong. "We encourage all workers and employers with questions or concerns to contact us so we can work together as a community to protect workers' rights and support businesses doing the right thing."
Businesses that don't comply will have their permits suspended.
"Everybody will have that courage to step up and voice their sentiments about their work, said Teresa Brillante, a previous victim of wage theft herself. "It can be intimidating and challenging to fight for our wages, even though it's money that we earned and worked hard for."