Long Beach faces renewed class action lawsuit for not paying some workers state minimum wage

In a ruling that could impact charter cities statewide, the California Court of Appeals this week said a judge improperly dismissed a class action lawsuit against Long Beach for failing to pay some workers the state minimum wage.

Employees Wendy Marquez and Jasmine Smith sued the city alleging that Long Beach paid less than the state’s $10-per-hour minimum wage to about 200 staffers in the Library Services and Parks, Recreation and Marine departments over a four-month period from January to April in 2016.

Long Beach in April 2016 agreed to pay the affected employees $10 per hour retroactively to align with the state’s minimum wage at the time. Since that time, the city’s minimum wage for employees has been aligned with the state’s minimum wage.

In the lawsuit, however, the city argued that while its pay is aligned with the state’s pay, the city isn’t required to pay the state minimum wage because as a charter city its wages are considered municipal affairs not subject to state regulation.

In California, cities can either follow the state’s general laws or adopt a charter set by local voters. The state has more than 100 so-called charter cities that have their own procedures for municipal affairs.

A judge sided with the city and dismissed the case in 2017.

But in a ruling released this week, the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed the judge’s decision, saying that state authority trumps charter city authority when it comes to minimum wage.

The state has an interest in protecting workers’ well-being, so Long Beach must abide by the state minimum wage, the justices wrote in the unanimous ruling.

“We conclude legislation setting a statewide minimum wage… addresses the state’s interest in protecting the health and welfare of workers by ensuring they can afford the necessities of life for themselves and their families,”  the ruling said.

The ruling means the city now faces a renewed class action lawsuit. Deputy City Attorney Gary Anderson in an email said Long Beach is exploring its legal options but no final decision will be made until the City Council has been briefed.

Labor attorney David Rosenfeld, who represents Marquez and Smith, said the difference averaged to an extra $700 per employee for a total of about $140,000. Rosenfeld said the city remedied the situation but still continued to fight the lawsuit.

“It seems silly for the city to spend this kind of taxpayer money to take the position that for a few months it doesn’t have to pay a group of workers minimum wage,” he said.

The City Council in 2016 officially adopted the California minimum wage schedule.

Long Beach Adopts California Minimum Wage Schedule With Local Wage Enforcement

Current minimum wage in both Long Beach and the state is $12, with a yearly increase that will cap at $15 by 2020.

In the lawsuit, the city had also argued that the below-minimum wage for its recreation leadership specialists and pages was set in a union agreement. The Court of Appeal, however, said the right to the minimum wage can’t be waived in a union contract.

The justices said Long Beach still has the authority to determine wages for its employees, it just has to follow a baseline.

“The law sets a floor based on the Legislature’s judgment as to the minimum income necessary for a living wage within this state,” the ruling said. “The city retains authority to provide wages for its employees above that minimum as it sees fit.”

Rosenfeld said the court’s ruling has a larger impact for charter cities statewide that are considering pay and benefits for employees.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the city paid the employees retroactively for the months when they were not paid the state’s minimum wage.

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Kelly Puente is a general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. Her prolific reporting has taken her all over Southern California—even to the small Catalina Island town of Two Harbors. She is a Tiki mug collector and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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