Enforcing City Minimum Wage Laws in California: Best Practices and City-State Partnerships

Tia Koonse, Miranda Dietzand Annette Bernhardt

Press Coverage

UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education
UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education


California leads the nation on one of the most significant trends in U.S. labor standards policy in decades. Across the country but especially in California, cities are passing their own minimum wage laws, often with significantly higher wage levels than currently exist at the state or federal level. For example, last year San Francisco raised its minimum wage to $15.00 an hour by 2018. This spring, the Los Angeles City Council voted to establish a city minimum wage that will reach $15.00 an hour in 2020 for businesses with more than 25 employees (and in 2021 for smaller businesses); Los Angeles County recently followed suit. San Jose adopted a city minimum wage in 2012 and smaller cities have recently done the same, including Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, Sunnyvale, Emeryville, Mountain View, Santa Clara, and San Diego.1 All signs point to additional minimum wage increases in cities throughout California in the next several years.

As cities begin to implement these minimum wage laws, the critical question of how best to enforce them rises to the forefront. Delivering on the promise of higher wages hinges on our ability to put robust enforcement systems in place to fight the chronic wage theft that low-wage workers experience far too often.

Unlike state or federal minimum wage laws, which already have an enforcement system in place, city minimum wage laws raise the twin challenges of creating new enforcement systems at the city level and coordinating with state enforcement efforts. Those tasks are further complicated by the range of city sizes and capacities, as well as the already stretched resources for enforcement at the state level.

Fortunately, policymakers and advocates increasingly understand the need for enforcement and can build on good existing models. In California, recent city minimum wage laws all include a set of strong legal tools to help with enforcement. Best practices have emerged from San Francisco, the city with the oldest local minimum wage law and the leading example of a robust city enforcement agency.

The goal of this report is to lay out a framework for enforcement of city minimum wage laws in California and to explore how cities can best coordinate with state enforcement efforts. We start by giving an overview of the problem of wage theft. We then discuss in detail the three pillars of an effective enforcement system: strong legal tools in the minimum wage laws themselves; where possible, a well-staffed local agency that is committed to proactive enforcement strategies; and ongoing partnerships with community-based organizations. We pay special attention to identifying options for funding enforcement and discuss in detail the constraints faced by small cities. We conclude by proposing a model of city-state collaboration on enforcing minimum wage laws in California.