A woman wearing glasses and a blazer stands near the Oakland Federal Building.
Emylene Aspilla, director of the Department of Workplace and Employment Standards (DWES), has been leading the department for just over a year. Credit: Amir Aziz.

Last month, the city of Oakland demanded a local Radisson Hotel pay over $400,000 in restitution for back pay owed to 128 workers. It’s the largest wage theft claim made by the city in recent history. It’s also probably the first time many Oaklanders learned about the existence of the Department of Workplace and Employment Standards, also known as DWES. 

Established in 2020, DWES handles a range of employment-related services that includes enforcing local labor laws. Until recently, labor enforcement hasn’t been a top priority in the city, and crimes like wage theft can be difficult to track, partly because many affected workers avoid filing claims for fear of retaliation. But labor violations happen in Oakland: Just this year, a local Popeyes franchise was busted for allegedly breaking child labor laws

The Oaklandside sat down with DWES Director Emylene Aspilla, who took over as head of the department just over a year ago, to learn more about what DWES does and what Aspilla hopes it can accomplish. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Tell me about your background. What did you do before joining the Department of Workplace and Employment Standards? 

Before I joined the city of Oakland I worked for San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development as director of strategic initiatives. Then I went to the San Francisco International Airport, where I was the director of social responsibility. The airport is one of the biggest in the country and had 43,000 employees, and I was overseeing the health and welfare of all those employees, as well as looking at procurements, and small local business, disadvantaged business participation. 

Before that, I worked in the nonprofit sector. I was the chief program officer for Jewish Vocational Service in San Francisco. I also worked for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation and Episcopal Community Services. I was doing workforce and employment support and workforce development. 

My whole time here in the Bay Area I’ve assisted in the nonprofit or public sector, always related to workers and small businesses. 

I’m from Toronto, Canada. I was born in the Philippines and my family moved to Canada when I was just two. My dad went from fixing motorcycles in Manila to fixing motorcycles in Canada. My mom was a seamstress. She had a little business, but she mostly worked for the same employer for decades. 

I come from a family of small businesses as well as low-wage workers. It’s very close to my heart personally as well as professionally. I always say that the role of government is to protect the people when the market fails. And the market often fails small businesses and low-wage workers. So I feel really privileged that I can help play a role in that. 

One way Oaklanders might learn about DWES is when they’re dealing with some kind of labor violation, such as wage theft. How does your office address labor and wage violations? 

This is where our Fair Labor Oakland partners come in. They’re kind of our outreach arm that works with the community. For some folks, it’s a very scary thing to say something about your employer. The fear of retaliation is huge. These are brown and Black workers. So the government isn’t necessarily the first place they want to come. 

That’s why we have this collaboration with EBASE and Centro Legal De La Raza and some other community organizations who have built that trust. For some folks it can be a direct connection to us, and sometimes it’s through our community partners. 

Usually, if one person tells us something that is going on, it’s probably not just them. It’s usually a ubiquitous thing: Everybody is not making the right amount of money, or everyone is not getting the same amount of sick time, or in the case of hotels, everybody is having a workload issue. 

We want to discover what the issue is, and then we’ll want to get the documentation to support the complaint. That will be information directly from the worker or workers: their paychecks, their pay stubs, and interviews with them, sometimes facilitated with our community partners. And we request formal documentation from the employers, usually payroll records and schedules. When it comes to hotels, we also have a limit on how many square feet a worker can clean during a shift, so we look at the floor plans for hotel rooms. 

It’s very labor intensive to look at all of these documents because usually they’re just dumped to us—they’re not in any organized format. We have to dig through it. But that’s our work. We’ll also do a site visit to see what’s going on and how they’re operating. 

It’s investigative at every level with the employee and with the employer as well.

Wage theft is a major problem in the Bay Area and California. We know it happens in Oakland: DWES recently issued two wage determinations—essentially demands for restitution on behalf of workers—against the Radisson Hotel and the restaurant Hi-Felicia for a total exceeding $500,000. What do those cases say about the prevalence of wage theft in Oakland? 

There’s more money in these two determinations we just put out than all of our violations since we started doing this work in 2015. We’re looking at half a million dollars in restitution. From 2015 to 2021 we had about $430,000 in restitutions. So what else is out there? Probably a lot. 

One of these determinations is from 2020. You ask any labor standards department in California, it’s not something you can do overnight. Even with the state of California, it takes years. We want to get to the point where it’s not. 

What else is out there? We don’t know what we don’t know. But we certainly want to uncover it, and we want to get that money in the hands of workers. And most importantly, we want to be really proactive and educate the businesses out there. 

There’s a lot of companies who are evil. They try to cheat any system, taxes, all kinds of things. But I also think there are some small businesses that just don’t know what they don’t know. We haven’t really done a huge education campaign on our small businesses, or on our hotels, actually. Measure Z applies to about 30 hotels in the city of Oakland. We have not touched all of those. I can’t even imagine what’s out there. I can just tell you the facts: What we’re seeing in just one year is more than in the past 8.

You mentioned this was a really awful budget year for Oakland. How did that affect DWES in terms of staffing and resources? 

In our last budget, we had 20 funded positions. But they weren’t all filled. Technically, in this most recent budget, three positions were frozen. When we became a department in 2020 we were supposed to get some resources, but that wasn’t fully realized. 

We were able to get, through Council President [Nikki Fortunato] Bas, some more money toward our partners with Fair Labor Oakland. But it was basically just a cost of living adjustment. They have had the same amount for the last three years. So really, we didn’t get more resources in this budget.

DWES does educational work with workers, but do you do the same outreach with employers? 

We haven’t done the employer educational piece. That’s something new I want to do. Especially with one of those cases I mentioned earlier, Hi-Felicia. I think there was some good intent there, but the owner didn’t quite do it right. I feel like if we were there to provide technical assistance or have a way for employers to ask us questions, this might have been avoided. 

We don’t really proactively educate our community on these issues, even our internal contractors. That’s a piece I want to build. Fair Labor Oakland is on the worker side, which is amazing, because that trust is there. But we do want to be more proactive on the employer side and have webinars, videos, short one-pagers on what applies to them. If you’re a small business, here’s everything, and if you’re a hotel, here’s everything. So that’s what I envision one day. 

Can you talk some more about what the Fair Labor Oakland partners are doing to educate workers about their rights? And did you create that relationship with FLO or was that coalition already in place when you took the job? 

Basically, they put out the word for us. That’s how it has historically been. We have our mandatory posters, on our website, that all employers should have this. But really it’s FLO doing most of that work.

FLO was already in place, but on my team no one really interacted with them at all. I think they were seen as very critical of the department, instead of more supportive.

I’ve been very receptive to FLO. I see them as an extra set of hands and eyes and ears, and in this work we need as many allies as possible.

Going into 2024, what do you need most from elected city leaders or the administration to safeguard worker rights in Oakland?

I am asking for support around technology. Everything we do is manual, and there’s a lack of data. So I’m really looking for data tracking and systems to streamline the information we ask for. We get these documents from employers and they’re photocopies of photocopies. We want them to fill out forms for us so we can mine the data ourselves. 

I know we’re in a tight budget situation, so it’s really hard to ask for more staff when we’re struggling this way. But I do feel like our mayor and our council understand the importance of this work. 

Overall, it’s more about letting employers and workers know that we are here. I think that will help. But it’s a careful balance. We have 20 open cases, which is pretty much the most we’ve ever had. The more cases we have, the longer things will take. It’s a tough situation.

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.