This profile is part of a series spotlighting the five winners of the 2023 Integrity Icon Award, a collaboration with Accountability Lab to “name and fame” City of Philadelphia employees who demonstrate the highest integrity in their work. Read all five profiles here, then vote for the “people’s choice” winner here.
Not many people can say they had a passion for labor rights as a child. Yessenia Gutierrez isn’t most people.
The daughter of working-class immigrants in Florida, she learned early on about issues like wage theft and unpredictable schedules. “I was aware from a young age that there is a lack of workers’ rights on the books,” she says. “A missed paycheck can really affect someone’s ability to pay rent or handle a car emergency.”
Her childhood concern evolved into a career, first as a labor organizer and later for a nonprofit that helped organize retail workers. Now, as a labor compliance investigator with the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Worker Protection, Gutierrez looks into cases of wage theft, violations of the City’s fair scheduling law and other issues of workers’ rights. Gutierrez alone helped recover and return almost $120,000 to workers whose rights had been violated in 2022. That’s a pretty impressive total, given that her entire department only recovered $180,000 in total for workers last year.
And she’s giving employers a fair shake, too. Gutierrez helps them come into compliance with City regulations, works out payment plans, and sticks up for them when they haven’t violated the law. Her dedication to treating both workers and their employers fairly during an often tense process and her desire to understand all sides of every story is what makes her one of this year’s Integrity Icons.
Integrity Icon is an awards program The Citizen has run in partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based Accountability Lab since 2021. The goal of the program: To hold up the city workers who model how we can all go above and beyond to make a positive impact in Philadelphia. This past spring, the public nominated dozens of excellent city workers for the award; Accountability Lab narrowed the list down to 20.
A panel of high-integrity judges reviewed the candidates, and selected this year’s honorees. The judges included 2020 Integrity Icon Richard Gordon IV, assistant superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia who spent years as principal of Paul Robeson High School; 2022 Integrity Icon Rebecca Lopez Kriss, a deputy commissioner in the City’s Revenue Department; Angela Val, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia; Amy Kurland, former Inspector General of the City of Philadelphia; and SEAMAAC Executive Director Thaoi Nguyen.
The ins and outs of labor compliance investigations
Gutierrez began her career with the Office of Worker Protection’s department of labor in 2019. She’d been looking for a career opportunity that combined her passion for labor rights with her budding interest in law; labor compliance investigator seemed like a good fit.
In Philly, investigators like Gutierrez are the first stop when employees file alleged labor law violations. They interview the worker, taking careful notes. Then they talk with the employer to get the other side of the story. If need be, they talk with witnesses and collect documentation for the claim to determine whether or not a violation occurred.
“As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized how important work is to me. I get a lot of fulfillment from my job and I want that for everybody. Labor rights is something that I want to work in for the rest of my life.” – Yessenia Gutierrez
“In investigations, you’re trying to get as close to the truth as you can,” Gutierrez explains. “That means actively listening to people and picking up on things that they’re saying, picking up on threads. If they say something to you, are you going to follow up on it? [If you don’t] details might slip through that are important to the investigation.”
Labor law violations are a major issue nationwide. Between 2017 and 2020, investigators like Gutierrez helped recover over $3 billion in stolen wages nationwide, per a report from the Economic Policy Institute. That amounts to about 130,000 Philly workers being cheated out of wages by their employers each week, according toTemple Law’s Sheller Center for Social Justice.
The City has a number of different labor laws on the books. “Every single law we have is because workers said, We need this law to make our lives better. We need this law so that we can support our families. We need this law so that we can have a work/life balance, and we need to take that seriously,” she says.
Gutierrez has worked on wage theft, worker retaliation and Covid protections cases. She specializes in investigating claims where a worker alleges their employer has violated the City’s Fair Workweek law, which requires business to provide service, retail, and hospitality workers with a predictable work schedule. Since the ordinance’s implementation in 2020, courts have held employers like Target and Del Frisco’s Steakhouse financially accountable for subjecting workers to erratic hours.
“It’s meant to give workers a more predictable schedule so they can manage their work/life balance better and have a sense of how much they’ll actually earn so they can be able to budget accurately,” Gutierrez says. “If an employer changes somebody’s schedule without their consent, that can mean less money or it can mean having to find a babysitter or all kinds of problems in a person’s life.”
Now, Gutierrez is the department of labor’s most senior labor compliance investigator. She handles complex cases in which employees may not have proper documentation, or cases with a lot of data to sift through. A native Spanish speaker, she also translates for the office, as Philadelphia’s Latino population grows.
Approaching each case with compassion
Gutierrez approaches each of her cases with a desire to build relationships with both the worker and their employer. She does this through active listening and empathy. “You’re learning about the person, and you’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next. You’re just processing what they’re saying and what they care about,” she says. “That can be a tough task. Workers are coming to the office at one of the most stressful moments in their lives. Some may have already faced retaliation from employers. They might be angry or blame the city.”
“Some may have already faced retaliation from employers,” she continues. “Sometimes people can come to us really, really stressed out and that can affect how they talk to us, but really, we shouldn’t take things personally.”
Though she came to her work through labor organizing, Gutierrez is quick to add that compliance investigators are there to help employers, too. She carefully considers the evidence they bring in before making a judgment.
“[Yessenia] came to the work with a social justice lens, but has also been really fair to employers when they aren’t breaking a law,” says Amanda Shimko, former director of the Office of Worker Protections who worked there when Gutierrez first started. “Yessenia cares about the people she is helping; she studied the laws diligently.”
Gutierrez believes advocacy plays an integral role in her work as a public servant. She’s still involved with activism, organizing with City workers to advocate for the PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) program and co-founding the nonprofit Penn Community for Justice in 2020. Her dream: a city where every employee in the city feels empowered at work. It’s where we spend most of our lives, after all.
“A lot of us can … get a lot of fulfillment from our work, but for a lot of people, it can also be the site where they feel the most disrespected, the most taken advantage of,” Gutierrez says. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized how important work is to me. I get a lot of fulfillment from my job and I want that for everybody. Labor rights is something that I want to work in for the rest of my life.”
Editor’s note: This fall, Gutierrez left her role to pursue a law degree at University of Minnesota Law School, with a plan to work in — fittingly — labor rights.
Integrity Icon Philadelphia is made possible in part thanks to the generous support of Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation.
MEET OUR 2023 INTEGRITY ICON WINNERS