New Labor Law Initiative Aimed at Southern California’s Landscaping Industry

The laws have been around for years, but the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hour and Wage Division has just started a new initiative aimed at making sure that Southern California’s landscaping workers are treated fairly.

Unfortunately, many landscaping companies violate the minimum wage, overtime, and record-keeping portions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  In fact, 77% of landscaping companies inspected around the country in 2010 and 2011 were in violation of the FLSA.  As a result, more than 6,000 workers received $4.8 million worth of back wages.

Even though those numbers account for the entire country, the problem is particularly bad in Southern California because there are so many large landscaping companies and subcontractors here.  With all of the competition, business owners are always looking for ways to keep costs down.  Sadly, many of them cut costs illegally — by taking it out on the “little guy”.

“The U.S. landscaping industry employs many low-wage, vulnerable workers and is characterized by historically high rates of labor violations,” said Kenneth Morrison, Director of the Wage and Hour Division’s San Diego District Office, which is coordinating the initiative. “Our initiative in Southern California aims to remedy common violations such as workers not being paid minimum wage or overtime, not being compensated for all hours worked and having illegal deductions taken out of their paychecks.”

So, how does the new initiative protect workers?

Landscaping companies around Southern California will now be getting unannounced visits — during which, investigators will interview employees, look at pay records, and review employment practices.

The goal of this new initiative is twofold — to make sure workers understand their rights, and to show employers that they can’t get away with breaking the law.

That employee education is vital, because many workers assume that if they’re not licensed, they’re not protected by the FLSA.  However, that’s not true.  Regardless of licensing issues, every landscaping worker must be paid an hourly wage of at least $7.25 (the federal minimum wage rate).  Additionally, each worker must be paid time-and-a-half for every hour they work over 40 hours per week.  According to the Labor Department, those hours also include time spent travelling to job sites and time spent in training.

As for employers, they have certain responsibilities under FLSA.  In addition to paying legal wages, they’re also required to keep accurate pay and hour records for each employee.  They’re also required to keep records related to employment conditions.  And, they’re forbidden from retaliating against any worker who exercises their rights under labor laws.

So, what happens if an employer is caught violating the law?

Investigators say they will use every available tool to make sure that workers get what they’re entitled to.  Depending on the violations, employers may wind up in a sea of back wages, civil penalties, liquidated damages, joint-employment liabilities, and other litigations.  By taking such a “no-nonsense” approach, the Labor Department hopes it will send a strong message to violators and companies who are even thinking of violating wage and hour laws.

And, since investigators know they won’t be able to visit every single business, they’re turning to local resources.  Since there are so many subcontractors here, Wage and Hour investigators are hoping that larger companies can help keep smaller subcontractors in compliance.  Plus, the California Landscape Contractors Association and other similar organizations are being brought in to help distribute information about labor laws.  These groups are also encouraging workers to come to them if they think their employer is violating the law.

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