Reparations and State Inaction

by Stephen Knight

The task force (photo from page 3 of the report)

California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans has issued its comprehensive California Reparations Report, including Chapter 10 — Stolen Labor and Hindered Opportunity. The report, which Worksafe has endorsed, makes for powerful reading.

Worksafe recognizes that uprooting racism and white supremacy is foundational to our work taking on the systemic inequities that underlie the lack of health and safety in so many workplaces.

The state report notes that:

During enslavement, American government at all levels enabled and benefited from the direct theft of African Americans’ labor. Since then, federal, state, and local government actions have directly segregated and discriminated against African Americans and also paved the way for private discrimination in labor and employment. Federal, state, and local laws and policies, including those of California, have expressly and in practice limited what work African Americans can do and suppressed African Americans’ wages and opportunities for professional advancement. Federal laws have also protected white workers while denying the same protections to African American workers, setting up and allowing private discrimination.

I was struck by the report’s focus on one specific form that this devaluation took:

Labor organizing has a long history in California that over time has led to some of the nation’s most worker protective laws…. [H]owever, California for decades exempted both agricultural and domestic workers from various protections….

In fact, these exemptions still largely define agricultural and domestic work protections today.

Furthermore, the report zeroes in on a basic failure of protection of African American workers, calling out just one specific state agency:

California’s support of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing [now the Civil Rights Department] has not been sufficient to meet the level of need. In 2013, the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes reported that even though California had the strongest antidiscrimination law in the nation, the agency was funded with a “relatively miniscule allotment of resources[,]” which left the Department unable to fully enforce the law and protect workers. The agency’s investigations of employment discrimination claims “suffer[ed] from understaffing, poor quality, intake confusion, and premature case grading.”

The underfunding by California state officials of the Civil Rights Department calls to mind what worker rights advocates have long pointed to — the underfunding of other worker protection agencies, such as Cal/OSHA and the Labor Commissioner’s Office. Worksafe has been calling out the “staffing crisis” at Cal/OSHA for decades. Today, the vacancy rate at Cal/OSHA is around 35% — meaning over one-third of this vital but underfunded and under resourced agency isn’t even staffed.

Even when they are fully staffed — and we are pushing hard for changes to resolve this ongoing crisis at Cal/OSHA — these agencies are still deeply under-equipped to achieve their mission and truly bring the promise of California’s progressive legal protections to the workplace. I appreciate that the reparations commission took the time to shine a light on this ongoing injustice.



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