Precarious Workers

Many low-wage employees struggle to attain workplace justice
Book cover art: Jose G. Ortiz / Hijos del Sol
Monday, October 24, 2016

In “Precarious Claims: The Promise and Failure of Workplace Protections in the United States,” ILR Associate Professor Shannon Gleeson argues that the power imbalance between employers and workers cannot be solved with stronger laws alone.

The book was published in September by University of California Press and is available through a free download at luminosoa.org. Luminos is the press’s open access publishing program for academic research and scholarly work.

Gleeson writes in the introduction of “Precarious Claims” that the book is a story “told from the perspectives of individual workers themselves, about how they experience the journey to justice: their plodding path through multiple agencies, appointments, medical visits, and reams of paperwork. Rather than asking how and why the labor standards bureaucracy operates as it does, I focus on how workers navigate its seas. What makes them decide to see their journey through, or, conversely, to abandon ship?”

Despite ongoing labor and employment law reform across the country – New York state is slated to increase its statewide minimum wage to $15 by 2018, and California is expected to do so by 2022 – the book illustrates how many workers struggle to attain a full sense of justice and restitution.

Gleeson’s research examines the experiences of low-wage workers contesting workplace abuse in the San Francisco Bay area.  She learned that over a third of low-wage workers filing a claim experienced a wage violation, in addition to a lack of state-mandated overtime and breaks.

Similarly, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” a 2009 study of low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, found that 26 percent of surveyed workers in low-wage and informal markets were paid less than the legally required minimum wage. Of those workers, 60 percent reported an underpayment of at least $1 per hour.

According to Gleeson, effective sanctions against workplace violations such as wage theft are difficult because not all workers have equal access to the law. Undocumented immigrants, women and racial and sexual minorities in low-wage industries such as retail, restaurants, hospitality and domestic work face particular barriers in mobilizing their legal rights and protections.

Even workers who are informed of their legal rights have little time to file claims, and have limited access to pro bono or "low bono" legal counsel, she argues.  

Those who do file claims often find that they are ineligible for protection, that they had only a slim chance of winning or that it is not worth the time and effort to proceed, according to Gleeson

Workplace injustices and the process of contesting them often also have long-term effects on the lives of employees, Gleeson said.

To improve workers’ rights, Gleeson points to local policy innovations such as those that would revoke business licenses of employers who refuse to pay wages. Worker advocates have also pushed for criminal penalties for non-compliant employers.

Gleeson ends the book by arguing for a fuller understanding about the challenges workers face following workplace abuse.

Improving formal laws is one essential step forward, she said.  However, so is a recognition that workers make strategic decisions about how to improve their work lives, and that navigating the bureaucracy of claims can often be an arduous journey.