State and Local Enforcement Project

 

The State and Local Enforcement Project strengthens enforcement and catalyzes state and local action to protect and advance workers’ rights, including by helping spur greater involvement in worker issues by government actors historically uninvolved in worker issues.

In many instances, states and localities have been at the forefront of innovations in enforcing workers’ rights, with new laws, new approaches to enforcement, and new government agencies and actors involved in worker protection. The Project supports these innovations and these efforts in various ways: by issuing reports, toolkits, and briefings; providing trainings and webinars; offering technical assistance; and more. The Project also assists worker organizations hoping to build relationships or work more effectively with these agencies.

The Project focuses especially on three groups of government enforcers who are all relatively new to workers’ rights enforcement: State Attorneys General; cities and other local labor agencies; and district attorneys and other state and local criminal prosecutors. In addition to serving as a resource for and source of expertise about these new enforcers, the Project created and facilitates working groups in each category, building a network of peers who can collaborate and learn from each other.

The Project is a joint project of the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and the Economic Policy Institute.

Learn more about the Project’s work:

Government Enforcers:

 

Enforcement Project in the News

While Fighting Workers, Railroads Made Over $10 Billion in Stock Buybacks – Kenny Stancil

September 22, 2022

WSW Staff
Wall Street Window

At the same time they have fought to deny sick days and other vital benefits to workers in the freight industry, rail carrier executives have been rewarding shareholders with billions of dollars in stock buybacks and dividend bumps.

Last week, labor lawyer Jenny Hunter and Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, argued in Slate that railroad companies nearly inflicted an economic catastrophe on the U.S. because they chose profit-maximization over humane workplace policies.... Read more about While Fighting Workers, Railroads Made Over $10 Billion in Stock Buybacks – Kenny Stancil

Slate logo

Railroad Companies Almost Inflicted an Economic Disaster on the U.S.

September 15, 2022

BY TERRI GERSTEIN AND JENNY HUNTER
Slate

All because they chose profits over humane working policies.

In the end, railroad companies are highly complex operations with extremely sophisticated logistics. It’s not plausible that it’s an unsolvable challenge for them to find a way for workers to take unpaid unscheduled leave for urgent reasons without penalizing them, which is perhaps why they ultimately made concessions. Maybe it was hard for companies to look Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in the face and say they just couldn’t figure it out.

Meanwhile, as we breathe a sigh of relief that there will not be a strike or lockout on Friday, we should remember what this fight is really about: the persistent difficulty some large corporations have in understanding that their workers are human beings, and not just one more piece of machinery.

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The Real Victims of Cancel Culture Are America’s Workers

September 5, 2022

BY TERRI GERSTEIN
Employees are all too readily fired just for speaking out about conditions at work.

Employers commonly take drastic measures to cancel workers who speak out virtually every day. Two household names—Amazon and Starbucks—have been among the most visible companies quashing worker expression in recent months. Amazon fired former warehouse worker and now Amazon Labor Union president Christian Smalls for organizing a protest about workplace safety during the height of New York’s first COVID-19 wave. The company later called the police on Smalls when he delivered pizza to former co-workers in a break room. More recently, Amazon called the police to deal with union organizers at its Albany, New York, warehouse.

But for those expressing deep concern about silencing of people’s voices, for those who genuinely hold a core belief in free expression, Labor Day should be their holiday, too. It’s high time for everyone who cares about free speech to fight for the people most frequently and all too easily canceled for speaking up: our country’s workers.

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Enforcement Project - Commentary and Publications

Terri Gerstein and LiJia Gong. 6/13/2022. The role of local government in protecting workers’ rights. Economic Policy Institute and Labor and Worklife Program.Abstract
What this report finds: In recent years, cities, counties, and other localities have become innovators and leaders in standing up for working people. A number of localities have come to view protecting workers and improving their working conditions as part of their core municipal function. Some of the most noteworthy ways in which localities have taken action on behalf of working people in recent years include: 

 

  • establishing dedicated local labor standards offices that enforce workers’ rights laws 
  • establishing ongoing worker boards or councils 
  • passing local worker protection laws
  • actively enforcing local worker protection laws 
  • setting job quality standards for contractors with the municipal government 
  • establishing legal consequences for labor violations among applicants for municipal permits or licenses 
  • practicing high-road employment principles in relation to municipal employees
  • championing worker issues through public leadership 

While other reports have done an excellent job of exploring local action on specific issues like paid sick leave, living wages, and creation of worker boards, this report identifies and examines the broader trend of increased local action and analyzes the landscape of cities and other localities’ pro-worker actions in a comprehensive way.

Why it matters: Policies and enforcement that protect the rights of workers, ensure workers are able to meet their basic needs, and support workers’ efforts to organize are foundational to building healthy, thriving, and equitable communities. Working people in the United States today face multiple crisis situations that not only adversely impact their well-being, but also undermine the health and well-being of communities. Outdated labor laws are skewed against workers trying to form and join unions, and workers who try often face retaliation and other violations by employers. Public enforcement resources are inadequate, and workers are increasingly unable to bring their claims in court because of forced arbitration. In this context, cities and localities are vitally important and necessary actors in the effort to expand and enforce workers’ rights. They are close to their residents, and often are nimble and fast-moving in responding to emerging needs. A few cities (along with a few states) are also at the vanguard of innovating on policy and piloting new approaches to expanding and protecting workers’ rights. There is very meaningful work currently happening at the local level, with untapped potential for much more local action. 

Terri Gerstein. 5/17/2021. How district attorneys and state attorneys general are fighting workplace abuses. epi.org. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Summary

Historically wage theft and other crimes against workers have not been prosecuted. Rather, civil enforcement by labor departments, along with private class-action lawsuits, have more commonly been the methods used to enforce crucial workplace protections like the right to be paid wages owed. However, responding to widespread, entrenched, and often egregious violations of workplace laws, an increasing number of district attorneys (DAs) and state attorneys general (AGs) have been bringing criminal prosecutions against law-breaking employers. This development is particularly important in light of limits in worker protection laws, underfunding of labor enforcement agencies that enforce those laws, and employers’ increasing use of forced arbitration clauses—which deprive workers of their right to take their employer to court, all of which have narrowed the options for workers whose rights have been violated.

  • State and local prosecutors have been bringing charges in a range of cases:
    • wage theft
    • misclassification (of workers as independent contractors) and payroll fraud
    • failure to pay unemployment insurance taxes
    • workers’ compensation insurance fraud
    • labor trafficking
    • egregious workplace safety and health violation
    • workplace sexual assault
    • witness tampering and retaliation
  • Criminal prosecution of violations of workers’ rights is appropriate and helps strengthen worker protection laws by establishing meaningful consequences for lawbreaking employers. Egregious violations of workers’ rights harm workers and communities, make it difficult for honest employers to compete, and deprive public coffers of money needed for critical safety net programs. Prosecutors engaged in workers’ rights issues should continue to build on this work, and more offices should join the effort.
  • State legislatures should strengthen statutes protecting workers, and ideally create funding mechanisms for pursuing criminal cases against lawbreakers.
  • Worker organizations and advocates should build relationships with DAs and the AG in their states to draw these untapped resources into the effort to protect workers’ rights.
MISCLASSIFICATION IN CONSTRUCTION: THE ORIGINAL GIG ECONOMY
Mark Erlich. 11/26/2020. “MISCLASSIFICATION IN CONSTRUCTION: THE ORIGINAL GIG ECONOMY.” ILR Review. Download PaperAbstract
The misclassification of employees as independent contractors has been the focus of recent attention as a result of the implementation of that employment model by ride-share and other gig employers. But the practice long predates the emergence of the gig economy, particularly in the construction industry. This article traces the history of misclassification in construction and the subsequent emergence of a cash-based underground system of compensation, which have lowered standards and been among the major causes of the decline of union density in the industry. In addition, the author examines the regulatory environment at the federal level, which has largely enabled misclassification as well as attempts by state agencies to adopt more aggressive enforcement policies.
Terri Gerstein. 8/27/2020. Workers’ rights protection and enforcement by state attorneys general. Economic Policy Institute. Economic Policy Institute.Abstract

Key takeaways

  • State attorneys general (AGs) have been playing a key role in enforcing and protecting workers’ rights.
  • State AGs have dramatically increased their involvement in this area in recent years; this report documents these activities in detail. Here are just a few examples of the many ways state AGs are protecting workers’ rights:
    • Helping workers attain safer working conditions during the pandemic
    • Recovering stolen wages through civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions
    • Fighting misclassification of workers as independent contractors instead of employees
    • Cracking down on companies’ use of noncompete and no-poach agreements, which limit job mobility
    • Proposing and supporting legislation to safeguard workers’ rights
  • State AG offices engaged in workers’ rights issues should continue to build on the work they’re doing, and more state AGs should join the effort.
  • State legislatures should grant explicit authority to state attorneys general to enforce workplace rights laws and should ideally also fund positions for enforcement.
  • Worker organizations and advocates should seek to build relationships and work with their state AGs to safeguard workers’ rights in their states.
Protecting Workers through Publicity: Promoting Workplace Law Compliance through Strategic Communication
Terri Gerstein and Tanya Goldman. 6/30/2020. Protecting Workers through Publicity: Promoting Workplace Law Compliance through Strategic Communication. LWP and Clasp.Abstract

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program have released a new toolkit on strategic communication, a critical component of driving compliance with workplace laws. Communicating about agency enforcement, which is critical to informing the public about their rights and responsibilities, is one of the most effective ways to deter violations. These goals are more important than ever as labor enforcement agencies strive to protect workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

This resource addresses why agencies should use media and other means of strategic communications and offers suggestions on how to do so. In a moment of reduced state budgets and limited resources, media coverage and strategic communications are a cost-effective way for agencies to multiply their impact and inform workers of their rights.

Download report

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Enforcement Project Events

2020 Oct 26

State AGs Protecting Workers' Rights Roundtable

1:00pm to 2:00pm

Location: 

online via Zoom

On Monday, October 26 at 1 pm EST we hosted a virtual roundtable discussion on how state attorneys general have been taking action to protect workers. We were joined by:

D.C.  Attorney General  Karl Racine Illinois  Attorney General  Kwame Raoul Minnesota Attorney General  Keith Ellison Pennsylvania Attorney General  Josh Shapiro Terri Gerstein,  Harvard LWP

D.C. Attorney General
Karl Racine

Illinois
Attorney General
Kwame Raoul

Minnesota
Attorney General
Keith Ellison

Pennsylvania
Attorney General
Josh Shapiro

Moderator:
Terri Gerstein,
Harvard LWP

In recent years, there has been a surge of activity by a number of state attorneys general in protecting workers’ rights. As detailed in a recent report issued by the Economic Policy Institute and the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program, state AGs have:

  • Brought civil lawsuits and criminally prosecuted employers for wage theft;
  • Combatted no-poach and non-compete agreements, which suppress wages/job mobility;
  • Fought misclassification of workers as independent contractors instead of employees;
  • Opposed and challenged anti-worker rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor; and
  • Taken action on behalf of workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Since 2015, six AG offices, including those of our speakers, have established units within their offices dedicated to protecting workers.

View video of roundtable discussion.... Read more about State AGs Protecting Workers' Rights Roundtable

2020 Dec 03

State Attorneys General as Protectors of Workers' Rights

4:00pm to 5:15pm

Location: 

Online Zoom meeting

Join the Economic Policy Institute and the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program for “State Attorneys General as Protectors of Workers' Rights” to hear directly from bureau, division, and section chiefs who lead labor rights work in their state attorneys general (AGs) offices. This webinar will address the growing role state AGs play in...

Read more about State Attorneys General as Protectors of Workers' Rights
2021 May 18

Prosecutions of wage theft and other employer crimes

3:30pm to 5:00pm

Location: 

Zoom

Hosted by Economic Policy Institute on Zoom

Join us for a panel discussion on how criminal prosecutions protect workers’ rights and ensure a level playing field for law-abiding employers. Hear from elected district attorneys about why they support this work and from line prosecutors about cases they have brought. Speakers will share ways prosecutors and worker organizations can build relationships and work together to improve workplace enforcement.... Read more about Prosecutions of wage theft and other employer crimes

State AGs Protecting Workers' Rights Roundtable 10/26/20

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