Targeting wage theft
Yesterday the City Council's Public Safety and Education Committee voted unanimously to clarify and strengthen penalties for individuals who commit wage theft. But before talking about the legislation, I want to rewind and talk about the problem.
In late 2009, my office received numerous reports about workers in low-wage industries in Seattle who had employers that intentionally withheld part or all of their wages, a phenomenon known as "wage theft."
My office conducted research into this issue, including meeting with community representatives and victims of wage theft, and I discovered that wage theft is a much more prevalent problem than I expected. One 2008 study surveyed 4,387 workers in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. More than two-thirds of these experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week - amounting to an average loss of 15 percent of weekly earnings.
In Washington, the State's Department of Labor and Industries received over 4,000 wage claims last year. The State researches and investigates these claims, but lacks sufficient resources to actively collect lost wages on behalf of victimized workers. If employers do not pay voluntarily, they often never pay.
Wage theft is a crime of opportunity. Some employers commit this crime because they think they can get away with it, it's as simple as that. And many of them do get away with it, making wage theft their standard business model. It occurs across a wide spectrum of industries and, as the committee heard in public testimony yesterday, not only to low-wage workers or immigrants.
The legislation I sponsored, Council Bill 117143, works to fill the hole in the State's enforcement mechanism. It allows the City to withhold or revoke business licenses from individuals who have been assessed penalties and have still refused to pay them. If you don't comply with a final ruling of a court or state agency ordering payment, we won't let your business operate in Seattle.
The second part of the legislation adds an explicit reference to theft of wages in the Seattle criminal code. These can be very difficult cases to investigate and prosecute, so the bill lists circumstances that prosecutors can point to as proof of criminal intent to steal wages. The purpose of this section is to reinforce, not replace, the role of Labor and Industries. It gives the City an additional tool in the fight against wage theft to use with some of the most egregious offenders.
The legislation the Committee passed yesterday advances to the full City Council for final consideration on Monday, April 25 at 2:00 p.m. If the Council adopts the new law, Seattle will send a politically and morally powerful message to unscrupulous employers that they can't take advantage of their workers. Not in Seattle!
And for those businesses who operate fairly and honestly in Seattle, this legislation helps to level the playing field by chasing away those who prey on their employees.
But, as good as passage of this new law will be, as a city we can do more. We must continue to uphold and respect the inherent dignity in a day's work and a fair wage. This point was made by a couple of speakers from the city's faith community at yesterday's committee meeting. Their testimony reminded me of the admonishment in the Jewish Scriptures, "Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns." Good counsel yet today.
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