WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday it turned up $3 million in unpaid wages owed to 1,549 workers in investigations this fiscal year in Southern California’s garment industry, a region that has had “historically high” rates of minimum wage and overtime violations, according to the agency.

This story first appeared in the November 7, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Department’s Wage and Hour Division conducted 221 investigations of apparel employers in Southern California, most in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, in fiscal year 2014. Labor officials said the average amount of back wages owed to each employee was $1,900, a figure that is five times the amount of what a typical sewing machine operator earns in a week.

“Fierce competition in the garment industry leads many contract shops to lower the cost of their services, frequently at the expense of workers’ wages,” said David Weil, administrator for the Wage and Hour Division. “When workers don’t receive the wages to which they are legally entitled, they can’t afford the basics like food, rent and child care.”

Since 2009, U.S. labor officials have found violations in 89 percent of more than 1,600 cases in Southern California and recovered more than $15 million in back wages for nearly 12,000 workers.

Several cases were highlighted, including an investigation of Montebello-based Roger Garments, in which more than $93,000 in unpaid wages was recovered for 44 workers. The DOL said Lunar Mode, based in Santa Ana, contracted nearly half its apparel production to Roger Garments. Investigators also cited Lunar for nearly $7,000 in unpaid back wages. Officials said products were sold to Macy’s and other women’s fashion retailers.

In another investigation, officials found that 37 employees working for Los Angeles-based contractor Eve L.A. Inc. were owed nearly $87,000 in minimum wage and overtime violations. Investigators said apparel checkers, trimmers and pressers were paid a flat weekly rate of $270 for an average of 50 hours a week. EVE was producing apparel for Dan Bee Inc. and Love Day Fashion. Dan Bee’s customers were said to include such retailers as Must Have and Potter’s Pot, while Lovely Day’s products were sold through online retailer Nasty Gal.

In a third highlighted case, officials said they recovered more than $28,000 in minimum wage and overtime owed to 13 employees at Lucky Stars, an El Monte-based contractor, which officials said sold apparel to such retailers as Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s.

Officials said an underlying problem contributing to the widespread violations is a large population of immigrant workers with limited English language proficiency, “who are unaware of their rights or are reluctant to speak up….making them particularly vulnerable to labor violations.”

Ruben Rosalez, regional administrator for the Wage and Hour Division’s Western Region, said the division has stepped up surveillance of establishments and deployed more multilingual investigators in the last few years. He also noted that the agency is working closely with the division’s Office of the Solicitor to obtain liquidated damages for workers and can assess civil money penalties against repeat and willful offenders.

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