James Yamasaki

Here's how one employee of LSG Sky Chefs—a large subsidiary of the German airline Lufthansa—describes her minimum-wage job in West Seattle: She usually has to be at work by at least 4 a.m., but when things are particularly busy, she might have to come in at 3 a.m. or even midnight. When she arrives, she and her coworkers—mostly immigrants and refugees from Africa, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China—work until 1 or 1:30 p.m. assembling sandwiches and salads to be sold inside 7-Elevens and on Alaska Airlines flights. Some workers make the food, and others inspect it. All day, they're working in a big walk-in cooler. "It's cold all the time," the worker says.

Sometime last year, this employee, who asked me not to use her name or job title because she's afraid of retaliation, found out that many of the coworkers standing beside her in the walk-in cooler weren't being paid Seattle's new minimum wage. Instead of the $11 minimum wage Seattle law required at large companies as of last April, some Sky Chefs employees were being paid just $9.47, the state minimum wage. Many of the workers first realized this when they heard what their friends at other minimum-wage jobs were earning.

Unite Here Local 8, the union that represents the employee I spoke to and her coworkers, went to the city last April. But now, more than a year later, the union does not know when the workers will get the money they've earned. A look at how long it's taken to get here—and the closed-door process by which it happened—is a case study in just how meaningless progressive victories are in the absence of effective enforcement.

LSG Sky Chefs refused to talk to me for this story, so it's impossible to confirm the wages reported by the union and the worker I spoke to, or to know why the company is apparently failing to follow Seattle's law. But let's look at some of the excuses other companies have tried to use.

Because the workers at Sky Chefs are unionized, their contracts are bargained alongside the thousands of Sky Chefs employees working in other cities. Because the rest of the country doesn't require the wages Seattle does, those contracts allow for lower pay than Seattle's minimum wage. But that doesn't give the company an out, because the local law applies to all workers, unionized or not. Another one: Only about 55 people work at Sky Chefs' West Seattle location. But Sky Chefs employs thousands of people, so it would be classified as a large employer, meaning they have to pay higher wages. Even for large employers, wages differ based on whether the company helps out with employee health care. According to the union, Sky Chefs doesn't.

All of those factors put the company in the highest minimum-wage bracket under Seattle's law. Employees at Sky Chefs should have started earning $11 an hour starting last April, and their wages should have gone up to $13 an hour this January. Instead, according to the union and the worker I spoke to, some employees last year earned just $9.47, the state minimum wage, while others in Seattle earned $11. This year, after union negotiations, they say most employees in Seattle are making $12.50. That's still less than the $13 they say the company should be paying—and workers are owed back wages from last year. (Remember, the union bargains for Sky Chefs workers all over the country, not just in Seattle. So they agreed to a contract that includes wages lower than Seattle's minimum wage, but the law says those workers inside Seattle are still entitled to Seattle's minimum wage, regardless of the contract.)

The union first took this case to the city's Office of Labor Standards (OLS) in early April 2015, soon after the city's new minimum-wage law took effect. That month, the city sent Sky Chefs a "compliance letter," a warning that they may be violating the city's minimum-wage law. Compliance letters are essentially toothless. A 2014 city auditor's report found that during the first year of Seattle's paid sick time ordinance, the city relied on similar letters to inform businesses they weren't following the law. During that time, employers paid no fines, only some paid back pay to employees that hadn't received sick time, and the city did little follow-up with businesses that didn't respond to the letter. When the minimum wage took effect, the city wanted to offer businesses a "soft launch" for the first year, but promised to not rely only on compliance letters.

But follow-up since the city sent Sky Chefs that compliance letter a year ago has been glacial. E-mail exchanges between the OLS and the union show repeated efforts by the union to find out the status of this investigation, only to be told, basically, "We're still working on it." At one point, the city wondered whether Sky Chefs might be exempt from the minimum-wage law because of federal regulations governing airlines, but found that wasn't the case.

In February, it appeared that the city was siding with the union. An investigator told the union that they'd sent Sky Chefs a "request for a pre-charge settlement," which offers a business that's violating a labor law the chance to quickly pay its workers what they're owed and avoid extra fines from the city. Nearly three weeks later, and after the union had again asked for an update, the investigator said the case had been handed over to Sky Chefs' lawyers. The company's lawyers, the investigator wrote in an e-mail to the union, were unable to review the city's letter because of vacations and court dates. The city would give the company's lawyer a week to respond, an investigator wrote in an e-mail to the union. But then the union heard nothing for another month. In mid-April, they asked again, "Where does this stand?"

The next day, a full year after the union first brought this case to the city, the investigator sent the union a cryptic e-mail. "The employer is still denying liability but willing to discuss settlement of the minimum wage allegations," the April 19 e-mail read. That was the last the union heard from the OLS, according to Sarah Warren, staff director for Unite Here Local 8.

"This is a multinational, billion dollar corporation just thumbing their nose at the law," Warren says.

Meanwhile, full-time workers who were earning $9.47 last year but should have been making $11 would be owed about $2,200 each for 2015. If those making $12.50 this year should indeed be making $13, they are owed $320 for the first four months 2016.

The OLS doesn't comment on ongoing investigations, according to enforcement manager Cailin Dejillas. In an interview, Dejillas would say only that they were "in contact with" Sky Chefs. When pressed on the amount of time the investigation has taken, Dejillas said the case was filed when the office had only two investigators and it involved "a pretty complex issue" of special federal regulations for airlines, which most cases don't involve.

The problem for the OLS—and the low-wage workers counting on that office to make sure they get paid—is that the Sky Chefs case is not all that unusual. While a full year is an extraordinarily long time for a city labor investigation, the number of investigations and the time those investigations take have only grown over the last year.

According to the city, it now takes 188 days on average to complete an investigation of a company that may be violating a city labor law. That wait is even longer—212 days—for minimum-wage cases. Those numbers are up from 113 and 57 respectively in July 2015, the first month OLS reports show minimum-wage investigation timelines. Another high-profile case launched last fall, in which workers at Beecher's Handmade Cheese in Pike Place Market said they'd been victims of wage theft and other labor law violations, has also not been resolved. (The company has denied the claims.)

Over the last year, the OLS has gone from having two investigators to four full-time investigators plus one intake person. The full-time investigators are handling about 38 cases each, Dejillas says. That's simply not enough manpower for a city with several complex labor laws on the books and, as the city council considers new scheduling rules, more to come.

"My feeling," says Olga Chavarria, the Unite Here Local 8 organizer who works directly with the West Seattle Sky Chefs employees, "is that the city has made laws but they don't have a really good way to enforce them."

In response, local unions are lobbying for a tax on businesses to pay for more worker education and investigators. The mayor has rejected the tax proposal but pledged to find money to double the OLS budget.

Dejillas, from the OLS, blames the high number of investigations and the complexity of some of those cases for the long timelines and delays. Investigators are "very busy and they have a lot of work," Dejillas says, "but they're doing great job."

That may be true, Unite Here's Sarah Warren says, but she also believes cases like Sky Chefs show the city is too sympathetic to business.

"They've given Sky Chefs a lot of extensions and opportunity to delay," Warren says. "If they don't feel like you're really coming after them, they're not going to change."

The total amount in question—about $2,500 in back pay per person—may not seem like much. But "we live paycheck by paycheck," the Sky Chefs worker says. That money could pay for rent, bills, groceries, or car maintenance—an increasingly common need as minimum-wage workers are pushed out to cheaper suburbs and forced to commute to Seattle to earn a higher minimum wage. In that reality, $2,500 can make a big difference. recommended