By Linh Nguyen
SAN FRANCISCO — On Apr. 21, 2020, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced the launch of a new “innovative” unit within the District Attorney’s office to protect workers’ rights.
The first of its kind in the nation, the Economic Crimes Against Workers Unit will investigate and prosecute crimes committed by employers against workers. It will focus on crimes including wage theft, labor trafficking and criminal immigration-related workplace retaliation. The new unit will also enforce California’s Unfair Competition Laws, which prohibits false advertising and illegal business practices. The unit will be led by Assistant District Attorney and Labor Liaison Scott Stillman.
“I am proud to establish this new unit, which will safeguard the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in our society: workers who are being exploited by their employers,” said DA Boudin in his press release. “I promised during my campaign that we would create this unit for those workers who far too frequently feel powerless in the justice system — and with a lengthy track record of fighting for employment justice, ADA Stillman is the perfect lawyer to protect their rights.”
According to the press release, ADA Stillman has dedicated his legal career to protecting workers’ rights, fighting for justice on behalf of workers. Before joining the DA’s office, Stillman was a partner of ten years at McGuinn, Hillsman and Palefsky Law Firm, where he specialized in employment law. He represented workers in a variety of cases, ranging from wage and hour disputes, discrimination, retaliation, sexual harassment and wrongful termination cases. Stillman also served as a member of the Diversity Committees of the California Employment Lawyers Association and the Executive Committee of Labor and Employment Law Section of the California Lawyers Association. He earned his law degree from Northeastern University School of Law and his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University.
“Throughout my career, I have seen the tremendous and too-often unchecked power that employers can hold over their workers,” said ADA Stillman in the press release. “I am eager to harness the resources of the DA’s Office to ensure that employees know their legal rights and that corporations are held accountable when those rights are violated.”
Stillman plans to collaborate with labor unions and community-based groups to provide further support in meeting the unit’s agenda. Furthermore, it also plans to collaborate with state and local civil enforcement agencies to advance worker protections.
Labor leaders strongly supported and applauded the creation of the Economic Crimes Unit.
“We applaud DA Boudin’s leadership and commitment to using the power of the prosecutor’s office to enforce laws that protect workers’ rights,” said Rudy Gonzalez, Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. This labor union’s division represents over 100000 union members and their families in San Francisco. “We are looking forward to working together with ADA Stillman and the DA’s office to advance justice for workers and the labor community.”
The rate of economic crimes against workers is more perceivable to the public amidst the coronavirus outbreak. For example, employees at Amazon warehouses in Staten Island, New York and Whole Foods (owned by Amazon) stores in Chicago went on strike, protesting unsafe working conditions.
The Department of Labor issued workplace guidelines for COVID-19 on Mar. 9, 2020, along with specific guidelines for the Fair Labor Standards Act, Family and Medical Leave Act and Federal Employees’ Compensation Act.
If infringed upon, the Economic Crimes Against Workers Unit could investigate local illegal labor practices during a time when workers are especially vulnerable to these crimes and prosecute offenders.
As Governor Gavin Newsom said in a press conference on Apr. 17, 2020, California is struggling through a “pandemic-induced recession.” Over three million people have filed for unemployment, and the unemployment rate in the state is 5.3 percent as of March 2020. The former director of the state Employment Development Department predicted that the unemployment rate could increase to as high as 12.5 percent.
To assist Americans during this time of turmoil, the federal government is issuing stimulus checks of 1200 dollars to those who filed taxes in 2019.
Businesses and companies are laying off their employees, including Disney, which is furloughing 43000 amusement park employees and Tesla, which will furlough nonessential employees and reduce all employee’s pay by 10 percent.
All aspects of salary cuts, furloughs and layoffs have legal implications. If found in violation of labor and employment laws, the offending employers could be investigated and prosecuted. Suits against employers are not prevalent because they are pursued by individuals or smaller groups of individuals. Therefore, economic crime in workplaces can go undetected. Having a government unit that actively works to seek out and prevent these crimes could reduce its rate and make the issue more public.
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