Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro brought criminal charges last September against a Centre County mechanical contractor for allegedly underpaying its workers by more than $64,000 over at least five years.
The charges against Goodco Mechanical and its owner, Scott Good, were just one part of the attorney general’s strategy to crack down on scofflaw employers — a strategy that, according to a new report, places Pennsylvania on the forefront of a trend of state attorneys general using their powers to protect workers’ rights.
In the last five years, several state attorney general offices — including those in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — have launched units focused on defending workers, transforming their offices into what report author Terri Gerstein describes as a rarity: a high-profile government entity that’s willing to hold employers accountable. Previously, only three states had such units; now, there are nine, according to Gerstein’s Economic Policy Institute report published Thursday.
The trend marks a major shift, as attorneys general have not traditionally taken action on worker-related issues, said Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program.
The shift comes as workers have faced increasingly precarious working conditions, and the percent of the workforce represented by a union has dropped to a historic low. It’s also part of a local worker protection movement, as cities and states attempt to fill the void left by the Trump administration, which has not prioritized workers’ rights.
But perhaps most of all, worker issues have found footing in the national consciousness: “If you go back to 2008,” Gerstein said, “[these issues] were not in the newspaper headlines. It wasn’t a matter of such intense, focused, public concern.”
In most states, including Pennsylvania, the attorney general is an elected position. Voters, she said, care about these issues.
When Shapiro took office in 2017, he launched the Fair Labor Section. Led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Nancy A. Walker, a veteran labor lawyer, the division has negotiated partnerships with gig companies such as DoorDash to provide financial assistance to delivery workers with COVID-19 and helped grocery workers get access to protective equipment.
Shapiro also co-led a lawsuit last summer against the federal government brought by 25 attorneys general to challenge a U.S. Department of Labor rule change that they said would expose millions of workers to labor law violations. And in 2018, he co-led a coalition of 11 attorneys general in a bid to stop fast-food franchisors from using “no-poach” agreements, a form of noncompete agreement that makes it harder for low-wage workers to get a new job.
The emphasis on workers’ rights on the part of attorneys general aligns with similar activities on a municipal level: Philadelphia, like cities across the country, has passed a number of cutting-edge worker protection laws in the last few years. And last year, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner launched a unit to focus on crimes against workers, joining a growing number of district attorneys setting their sights on workers’ rights.