Labor Commissioner’s Office Gets Training to Help Resolve Claims Early

By Laura Ernde November 30, 2021
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​The California Labor Commissioner's Office recently underwent training aimed at resolving workplace disputes before a formal hearing takes place, which is a positive move for employees and employers looking to settle claims quickly and amicably.

The bulk of the agency's complaints involve wage and hour claims such as unpaid or underpaid overtime, minimum wage violations, and unpaid meal and rest breaks. Low-wage workers living paycheck to paycheck need a fast resolution. Likewise, employers that are trying to do right by their employees appreciate the opportunity to quickly correct any violations, according to lawyers who routinely handle these cases.

Pandemic Prompts Changes

The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of complexity to these labor conflicts. California's supplemental paid-sick-leave law and other pandemic-related state and federal directives have accounted for many new claims.

Caseloads increased when the California Labor Commissioner's Office pivoted to remote work last year, observed Phoebe Liu, an attorney with the office. The office grappled with novel questions regarding the parameters of new sick-leave rules, the availability of personal protective equipment  and other workplace safety concerns, and the ability of employees to work from home while meeting child care needs and other obligations.

"COVID has really changed all of us and our agency," Liu said. "The Labor Commissioner's Office realized we would need to think outside the box in reaching settlements and resolutions that fit people's needs."

Liu coordinated with the UC Hastings Law's Center for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution to develop a training program tailored to the needs of the Labor Commissioner's Office. The training was delivered this fall to 227 staff members.

Staff who handle settlement conferences were certified in mediation, and staff who regularly help members of the public when they ask for information or file a complaint were certified in negotiation. After receiving instruction, the trainees got to test their knowledge by role-playing examples of situations they regularly confront. Hastings Law coaches then offered one-on-one feedback. 

Recognizing Trauma

In addition to the mediation and negotiation training, Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower requested that all participating employees attend a workshop to help them develop strategies to recognize and respond to the traumas affecting workers who file claims.

"She wanted us all to be more aware of how those who file claims with us might have experienced trauma and how that impacts how they respond," Liu said. 

Two professors who teach at UC Hastings Law's Individual Representation Clinic—which represents low-wage workers who have brought claims to the Labor Commissioner—said emotions in these cases often run high due to personal relationships or employees feeling betrayed or mistreated.

Many cases arise from lack of knowledge rather than a willful disregard for the law, so having a dispute resolution mindset is helpful, said Mattie Robertson, deputy director of UC Hastings Law's dispute resolution center. Robertson helped develop the training program.

Striving for Amicable Resolutions

Some of the stress related to a formal hearing over a workplace dispute can be alleviated when claims are resolved early through less formal processes.

UC Hastings Law professors Mai Linh Spencer and Miye Goishi said they support the focus on trying to resolve cases before the hearing stage or even before a formal determination is issued.

"An adversarial hearing may exacerbate the bad feeling," Spencer said. "In many cases, skilled mediation will reach a faster, better result. When a mediator takes the time to listen carefully to our client, realistically assess the merits of their case and try to reach meaningful settlement, our client is going to be more satisfied with both the result and the process."

Settlement talks are useful because they allow the parties to feel heard. "It can be a time-consuming process, but well worth it for all involved," Goishi said.

Jennifer Shaw, a management attorney with Shaw Law Group in Sacramento, Calif., echoed their sentiments and said a lot of the disputes she sees are simple misunderstandings that can be settled before the hearing stage, often without the aid of a lawyer.  

"Lawyers usually make the process more cumbersome and more expensive," she said. "Most of the time, what's needed is a little education."

For example, Shaw recently represented a company that provides in-home caregivers. A caregiver who was fired filed a claim with the Labor Commissioner's Office complaining he didn't get his required meal and rest breaks. He didn't believe it when his former employer told him he was exempt from the meal and rest break law. But one settlement conference with the Labor Commissioner's Office gave him the information he needed.

The training, funded by the California Legislature, has already empowered staff in a push to settle cases even before the investigation stage, Liu said. While statistics were not yet available, investigators for the agency have reported that they are putting their new skills into action.

Shaw said she hopes the commissioner's office will continue its focus on quick resolutions even after working through its backlog.

"This will establish with employees and employers the independence of the Labor Commissioner and their desire to enforce the law and not take sides," she said.

Laura Ernde is a San Francisco-based writer and communications consultant.

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