State and Local Enforcement Project

The role of states and localities in protecting workers’ rights has never been more important. New officials and agencies are engaging in labor standards enforcement, new laws are being passed and new enforcement strategies are being tested. The Enforcement Project, funded in part by the Public Welfare Foundation, fills a critical need in examining and strengthening innovative state and local actions and initiatives. 

The Enforcement Project works with government agencies and officials engaged in enforcing workplace laws. Among other things, the project:

  • Collaborates with state attorneys general, convening a network of offices interested in protecting the working people of their states;
  • Seeks to develop the potential role of district attorneys in enforcing workplace laws; and
  •  Provides technical assistance to state and local government labor agencies, as well as to worker organizations and advocacy groups seeking to collaborate more effectively with government.
  • Conducts research on matters affecting low-wage workers, and potential ways states and municipalities can address their needs.

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

Enforcement Project in the News

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Kim Kardashian is being sued for employment practices that are sadly common

May 26, 2021

Terri Gerstein
NBC News THINK 

In the latest celebrity labor scandal, reality TV star Kim Kardashian West was sued in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday by seven workers accusing her of wage theft, retaliation and more. They literally worked on the grounds of her home. Kardashian West’s response to these allegations? “These workers were hired and paid through a third-party vendor,” her spokesperson said. “Kim is not party to the agreement made between the vendor and their workers, therefore she is not responsible for how the vendor manages their business...

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Wall Street’s Grip on Secret Harassment Hearings Starts to Crack

May 12, 2021

Max Reyes
Bloomberg

But their path to ending forced arbitration on Wall Street is seen as long and arduous. Much of the finance industry, including Goldman, remains committed to settling disputes behind closed doors, and change is unlikely to pass easily through a divided Congress.

“It still helps to build momentum and build a shared understanding that this practice of forced arbitration is not right,” Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard Law School, said in an interview. “It’s not fair, and it’s not good...

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Big Law Builds Up State AG Expertise Amid Enforcement Boost

May 12, 2021

Ellen M. Gilmer
Bloomberg Law

Top law firms are building out practice groups focused on state attorneys general, whose aggressive moves on everything from workers’ rights to Big Tech have clients looking for lawyers with a deep understanding of the process.

Harvard Law School’s State and Local Enforcement Project director Terri Gerstein, former head of the Labor Bureau in the New York attorney general’s office, cautioned private practice lawyers against relying too heavily on relationships formed during their past work in state offices.

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Enforcement Project - Publications

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...

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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

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