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California’s laws targeting wage theft – which is the failure by bosses to pay workers what they are owed – make it a leader among states, according to national labor experts. But in practice, enforcing those laws has not been easy.

Just last year, legislators made certain instances of wage theft a felony. They also fixed their sights on wage theft in the garment industry, eliminating some longstanding pay practices that often resulted in workers being paid below the minimum wage.

But State officials and lawmakers say the Labor Commissioner’s office, the California agency overseeing wage and hour violations, has been too short-staffed to do its job, a problem that worsened during the pandemic and subsequent labor shortage.

Last year alone California workers filed nearly 19,000 individual claims totaling more than $338 million in stolen wages. Many claims take three times longer than the legal minimum of 135 days to resolve, data provided by the Labor Commissioner’s office show.

According to the report by CalMatters, nearly a third of the Labor Commissioner’s positions were vacant in May, officials told a state Senate budget committee. In August, a spokeswoman for the Labor Commissioner’s office told CalMatters the office had hired 288 people since January 2021, but not how many people had left the office during that period.

The Labor Commissioner’s budget this year is $166 million, enough funding for nearly 840 positions.

Experts and legislators say California’s bureaucratic hiring processes and below-market salaries are complicating its hiring efforts.

When it comes to recruiting workers “it’s three strikes against them right now, just the government in general,” said Patrick Murphy, director of resource equity and public finance at The Opportunity Institute, a nonprofit that studies poverty and racial inequality in California. “It’s the nature of government, the tight labor market, and then the specialization that goes with these jobs.”

The state’s hiring and retention issues at agencies enforcing labor laws have existed for years. The Little Hoover Commission, California’s bipartisan oversight agency, studied wage theft in 2015 as part of an investigation of California’s underground economy.

The study found that state investigators across agencies are paid less than those in police forces and often require more training and education. The state’s hiring process for such jobs can take up to a year, the report found, making hiring frustrating for all parties.

We’re just not a competitive employer,” said Krystal Beckham, a project manager with the commission who led the study. “You can see that when it comes to enforcement in the underground economy.”