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A series of proposals under consideration by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors aim to rein in workplace abuses that disproportionately impact immigrant workers in many of the same industries identified during the pandemic as essential.

According to the report in Voice of San Diego, elected officials directed county staff in March to come up with an ordinance that requires subcontractors on development projects approved by the county to publicly disclose more information, including proof that they have workers’ compensation insurance.

In May, Chairman Nathan Fletcher also recommended the creation of a new Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement to “correct patterns we see over and over again” in workplaces.

Labor leaders and workers told Voice of San Diego they’ve seen or experienced exploitation that includes not being paid for all the hours they worked and not being allowed to take days off when sick or injured.

The task of documenting such abuses has typically fallen on advocacy groups and unions, not law enforcement. With both proposals, though, the county is signaling that it’s taking workplace violations more seriously and trying to serve as a bridge between prosecutors and workers who often feel they can’t come forward because it might get them fired or even deported.

The construction industry relies heavily on unauthorized immigrants as workers, said Kimberley Robidoux, a local attorney who works on immigration employment matters with companies.

In other industries, like agriculture, there have even been documented abuses of workers with visas, which led the U.S. Government Accountability Office to call for increased protections of foreign workers.

A janitorial company, Prizm Janitorial Services, has also come under fire locally for wage theft – and it did so while under city contract.

A 2016 audit of Prizm found the city had paid Prizm roughly $600,000 for janitorial services, inewsource reported, but its payroll records showed it only paid its workers about $200,000.

The company, according to the audit, required workers to get their own business licenses, so they could be classified as independent contractors. The audit also found the company paid some employees in cash with handmade receipts for which it couldn’t provide stubs. Employees weren’t given sick leave or paid overtime.

In addition to the efforts at the county to make contracting more transparent, there’s also an effort in the Legislature to punish employers who intentionally steal from their workers. A bill written by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez would make employers criminally liable for wage theft totaling $950 during a consecutive 12-month period. The California Chamber of Commerce, a statewide business group, was initially against the bill, but dropped its opposition last month at a hearing.

One notable study in 2008 surveyed more than 4,000 workers in the three biggest labor markets: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. It found that the core protections many Americans take for granted – including access to workers’ compensation when injured – barely exist in retail, restaurants, home health care and construction, to name a few.