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Wage theft in Seattle

One of my favorite movies of all time is “Raising Arizona,” a Coen brothers classic. There’s a scene a few minutes in where Nicolas Cage’s character picks up his check at the payment window and then looks at the clerk, a large lady with a cigarette and an intense Southern drawl. Her response to his apparent incredulity at his week’s pay: “Government do take a bite, don’t she?” She hits the bell and the next worker walks up to get his check.

A lot of us like to complain about how taxes from our government impact our paychecks, but there’s a large population of workers who have an even bigger complaint: not getting paid the wages they were promised, and sometimes, not getting paid at all. We’re working on a story this week about wage theft, which the National Employment Law Project says affects as many as seven out of 10 workers.

Workers marchingIn Seattle, the exact number of people impacted by wage theft isn’t clear, but the workers’ rights advocacy group Casa Latina filed 100 wage theft complaints with the state over an 18-month period. In its new budget, the city will invest $1 million in a new Office of Labor Standards to enforce the wage theft law Seattle enacted in 2011. The problem with that law? The city ordinance has yet to bring about  a single prosecution of employers who withhold pay. The new law adds a civil standard (easier to prove) to the criminal standard (tougher to prove) to make it easier for workers to file their cases.

The Seattle Channel asked 15 restaurants and nine business groups (the Seattle Chamber, the Association of Washington Business, and the Washington Restaurant Association, among others) to appear on our studio panel to discuss this issue, but every one of them declined. We did get an interview with Neighborhood Grills’ owner John Schmidt, who gave us his take on wage theft: “It’s already illegal, and I think that people, eventually, pay the price.” He pointed to the recent example at Paseo, Seattle’s world-famous sandwich shop, which closed down amid a wage-theft lawsuit. But advocates say that closure is just the tip of the iceberg. Carino Barragan of Casa Latina tells us many workers are afraid to come forward. David Mark, a longtime Seattle labor attorney, says the problem is “rampant” in the construction and restaurant industries.

The issue now: enforcement. The city plans to ramp up its investigations of businesses involved in wage theft, but City Council President Tim Burgess is frustrated that more severe actions—like revoking an employer’s business license—haven’t been used more aggressively with offenders. Keep a close eye on this issue as Seattle starts to implement higher minimum wages in 2015. The government may be taking a whole new “bite” out of Seattle businesses that are breaking the law. But is the city biting off more than it can chew?

Stay tuned and watch City Inside/Out: Wage Theft for more information.

Brian Callanan is the public affairs host for Seattle Channel.