The battle brewing over California workers' unique right to sue their bosses

Suhauna Hussain, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

California workers who believe they have been victims of wage theft or other workplace abuses have for more than two decades relied on a unique state law that lets them sue employers not only themselves but also for other workers.

Now a battle is shaping up over the law, known as the Private Attorneys General Act, or PAGA. An initiative seeking to replace PAGA will appear on the ballot in California in November, the culmination of long-standing efforts by corporate and industry groups to undo the law.

Two reports released last week offer dueling narratives about whether PAGA helps or hurts workers — marking the opening of a potentially expensive fight over the landmark law that relatively few know about.

Labor researchers say that the ballot measure, if approved, would harm employees, particularly people with low-wage jobs, by taking away their ability to file what are essentially class-action suits against employers that allege labor law violations. The ballot measure also would weaken the state's already strained system for enforcing workplace laws, the researchers say.

But the business coalition backing the ballot initiative, called the Fair Play and Employer Accountability Act, counters that the labor law has resulted in a proliferation of lawsuits that small businesses and nonprofits have little ability to fight. Workers end up getting less money after a long legal process than if they had filed complaints through state agencies, the initiative's proponents say.

Worker advocates have long complained that chronic understaffing at state agencies responsible for investigating employee complaints means that allegations about wage theft and other violations can take years to be resolved. So workers turn to the courts.


Luz Perez Bautista and her mother, Maria de la Luz Bautista-Perez, were among three named plaintiffs who sued Juul Labs Inc. in federal court in 2020 for allegedly misclassifying some 450 campaign staffers working on a ballot measure the company was promoting to allow the sale of electronic cigarettes in San Francisco. The workers were all classified as independent contractors rather than employees, which saddled them with expenses that employees wouldn't have to pay.

Workers were made to travel long distances between campaign offices without pay, were not given lunch breaks and were terminated abruptly, Perez Bautista said, speaking at a news conference last week to unveil a report by the UCLA Labor Center as well as researchers at advocacy groups PowerSwitch Action, and the Center for Popular Democracy.

Because the workers had signed arbitration agreements, without PAGA they would not have had the legal standing to take Juul and the nonprofit it created for the campaign to court. Through their PAGA claim workers secured a $1.75-million settlement.

"It is important for other workers to see that ... you can hold your boss accountable," Bautista-Perez said at the news conference.


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