This article describes and analyzes the considerable surge in state and local government activity protecting workers in recent years. It situates this growth in state and local action as a response to degradation of working conditions resulting from longstanding economic, political, and legal trends, and the resulting worker organizing to counter those trends. It also positions this burgeoning activity as a reaction to challenges at the federal level, including rollbacks and worker-hostile policies by the Trump administration, as well as gridlock in Congress.

The article frames the uptick in state and local worker protection activity within three specific categories: new players enforcing labor standards laws and basic workplace protections; new laws; and new methods of enforcement. New players include state attorneys general, many of whom have significantly increased their workers’ rights dockets of late, and several of whom have established new dedicated units; municipalities, a number of which have passed their own local worker protection laws and several of which have established local agencies dedicated to workers’ rights; and criminal prosecutors, who are increasingly bringing charges in relation to wage theft and other employer workplace crimes. New laws at the state and local level span a range of issues: minimum wage-setting, overtime coverage, collective bargaining, paid sick days, paid family leave, fair workweeks, employer retaliation, workplace safety, and more. New methods of enforcement include utilizing a strategic enforcement approach (instead of a more traditional reactive model); partnering with worker and community organizations; creating licensing consequences for violators; and publicizing violations, among others.

Finally, the article urges continued focus on worker protection at the state and local level even in light of the new, more worker-friendly federal administration for several reasons, including the longstanding “laboratory of experimentation” role of states (and now also localities); states’ and cities’ closeness to constituents and ability to respond to respond to local conditions; the scale of the crisis facing workers today and need for an “all hands on deck” approach; the number of workers who cannot file lawsuits because of forced arbitration, necessitating more government enforcement at all levels; potentially more promising state courts, in light of the increasingly conservative composition of the federal judiciary; and, given political fluctuations over time, the hedging value of ensuring that multiple levels of government focus on protecting working people.

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