Inspectors target businesses prone to safety, labor violations

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Baca listened closely as the men introduced themselves as agents of the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, Employment Development Department and Cal-OSHA.

Baca, owner of the restaurant only since May, had never experienced anything like this. He scrambled to produce various documents and records and answer questions about his business.

Forty-five minutes later, Baca had a clean bill of health and smiled as the state agents moved on. His worst sin had been to fail to return two floor mats to his restaurant kitchen after they had been cleaned earlier that morning.

This is no shakedown.

It's simply the state of California's way of monitoring employee working conditions in industries it has identified as prone to take advantage of low-skilled workers. It is part of an effort by the state to curb the so-called underground economy, which puts law-abiding businesses at a disadvantage and adversely affects taxpayers.

"We have identified certain industries that have demonstrated in the past that some of their members don't treat employees fairly," says Dean Fryer of the state's Department of Industrial Relations.

The industries targeted by the state are restaurant, construction, garment, agriculture, car wash, horse racing and janitorial.

"These are the industries where violations are most commonly found," Fryer says. "They also are industries that often employ large numbers of immigrant workers."

On a one-day sweep of a Mexican restaurant, a Mexican take-out shop, and Chinese and Italian restaurants, only minor record-keeping and safety violations were noted.

The day before, a similar restaurant check resulted in $5,000 in fines and numerous safety violations.

Similar sweeps were held in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Francisco.

The most common violation is lack of current workers' compensation coverage, which can cost an employer $1,000 per worker.

Employee timecard and record-keeping violations can result in fines of $250 per employee per week.

State officials say they have no interest in the bulk of the 2.9 million businesses that follow the law. But they know that not everyone does and they target businesses that have had an unusual number of labor complaints filed against them, or those that don't have workers' compensation documentation on file with the state.

"We have found that if they don't have workers' compensation coverage, it means they probably are cutting corners in other areas as well," says Alonso Silva, an enforcement officer with the state.

The statewide crackdown on businesses that don't follow labor and safety laws accelerated last summer when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allotted $5.5 million for the Economic Employment Enforcement Coalition, which is composed of state labor, employment and safety officials as well as the U.S. Department of Labor.

The result is that 60 new investigators and support staff are available to check on possible offenses.

"This is really what we needed," Silva says. "We have had only five investigators in Southern California and five in Northern California. We really needed help."

In 2004, state officials issued more than 19,000 citations and fines totaling $56.3 million.

Fryer says the number of those violations are only expected to climb as state agents conduct more checks.

"This is not about making money for the state, but about taking care of employees who need our help," he says. "More manpower will mean that it will be harder for these employers to escape unnoticed, and workers will be better off."

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