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California is sitting on millions that could boost wage theft response

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As lobbyists for businesses and labor groups negotiate with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration on how to amend a unique California labor law that allows workers to sue their bosses, the two sides seem to agree on at least one puzzling reality.

The law, known as the Private Attorneys General Act, generates millions each year for a state fund reserved for enforcing state labor laws, including those against wage theft. But despite rising worker complaints of labor violations and severe understaffing hampering the state Labor Commissioner’s Office’s response, California leaves much of the money untouched.

The money comes from the state’s cut of the settlements and fines that businesses pay in response to these lawsuits. For years, the fund has grown faster than lawmakers and Newsom have directed it to be spent, according to state budget documents. In 2022-23 they left $197 million in the fund unspent; the 2023-24 budget leaves $170 million.

The state draws from the fund each year for portions of the Labor Commissioner’s budget, as well as other agencies. And the fund has paid for some worker outreach and enforcement. Those programs include $8.6 million in recent grants to 17 local prosecutors to pursue criminal charges in wage theft cases, and a pandemic-era partnership with community groups to inform workers in 42 different languagesabout workplace rights.

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