In a unanimous 7-0 vote, the Fresno City Council granted the city attorney powers to go after companies for wage theft.
“The only difference I see in those that the Chamber wants to hold accountable versus those that they want us to certainly do nothing about, is that the groups who steal people’s wages might pay their membership fees.” — Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias
However, the conversation at City Hall before the vote on Thursday took place centered on allegations that the Fresno Chamber of Commerce made political threats to supporters of the bill, including its author Tyler Maxwell.
The Chamber endorsed Maxwell for his unopposed run for city council re-election on March 5. Multiple sources say the Chamber threatened to yank Maxwell’s support.
Maxwell had no comment. The Chamber’s endorsement came along with a $1,000 contribution from the group’s political action committee.
Scott Miller, Chamber CEO, explained the conversation he had with Maxwell.
“I made a comment to one of the councilmembers that I had a request, by a member of our board, to put the endorsement up for review,” Miller said.
“It was a truthful statement. I was not threatening it. I do not have the power to do that on my own. And really, it was in the context of asking for the council to press pause and get more feedback from the business community.”
Technically, endorsements come from the Fresno Chamber PAC.
The Chamber sent a letter to councilmembers and other city leaders stating its “strong opposition” to the resolution. It wrote that the state already has avenues available for wage theft recovery, namely the Private Attorneys General Act.
“Those comments were entirely uncalled for and bombastic and extremely inaccurate.” — Scott Miller, CEO, Fresno Chamber of Commerce
“We are concerned that introducing another layer of bureaucracy at the local level, particularly in a system that already provides significant challenges to even the most conscientious businesses can only divert scarce city resources away from other important issues without necessarily adding any tangible benefit for those it is intended to help,” Miller wrote.
Miller, speaking to GV Wire, said all members of the Chamber oppose wage theft. However, he said, the city already has enough on its plate.
“We represent Fresno’s most honorable businesses, who measurably give back to the community and attempt to do the right thing,” Miller said.
Arias Calls Out Chamber
During the debate, Councilmember Miguel Arias called out the Chamber, saying it should be ashamed for opposing the resolution and making threats.
“The only difference I see in those that the Chamber wants to hold accountable versus those that they want us to certainly do nothing about, is that the groups who steal people’s wages might pay their membership fees,” Arias said. He proceeded to list businesses that are Chamber members.
Garry Bredefeld echoed Arias, condemning the Chamber’s perceived political threat.
“That’s a disgrace. I didn’t get that call. I think they know better than to call me with any kind of threats,” said Bredefeld, who is running for Fresno County Supervisor. The Chamber endorsed one of Bredefeld’s opponents, incumbent Steve Brandau.
Miller said that the thing Arias and Bredefeld have in common is that neither are endorsed by the Chamber PAC.
Regarding Arias’s comments, Miller said, “Those comments were entirely uncalled for and bombastic and extremely inaccurate.”
Mike Karbassi also received the Chamber PAC endorsement and $2,500 for his council re-election campaign. He said the Chamber never threatened to pull his endorsement in conversations.
Luis Chavez said on the dais that his conversation with the Chamber was “animated.”
City Attorney Empowered
Wage theft can include not paying employees, not granting breaks, and misclassing employees. Authority applies to the crime taking place within the city of Fresno.
The policy would help alleviate the caseload of the state labor commissioner, the resolution’s backers said. The city attorney would take cases that are the most egregious and can be proven.
“If the state labor commissioner is unable to take our local wage theft cases, we’ll prosecute them ourselves,” Maxwell said from the dais. “We will be coming after are the Bitwises of the world, the Cheesecake Factories of the world who lie and cheat their honest employees out of their hard-earned money.”
An amendment to the resolution proposed by Karbassi will sunset the city attorney power on July 1, 2026, requiring the council to reauthorize the resolution. The state law that granted cities to go after wage thieves sunsets in 2029.
Arias also criticized the wage theft unit at the Fresno County District Attorney’s office for inaction.
“I don’t believe that they’ve effectively taken on wage theft in our community. Or if they would have, we wouldn’t see workers who have not been paid for weeks and weeks on end waiting years in line for the state labor board to take action,” Arias said.
District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp disagreed with Arias’s assessment.
“I think once again, Mr. Arias doesn’t do his homework, and he is talking about things for which he has no factual basis,” Smittcamp said.
Smittcamp said they mostly handle criminal wage theft cases, which are rare. The labor board handles the civil end.
“We cannot prosecute cases that are not referred to our office,” Smittcamp said.