Every Wednesday, Latino day laborers and service-industry workers, many of them in the United States illegally to earn money for their families back home, gather in the Central District and learn how to take their bosses to court. They are informal students of Casa Latina's Worker Defense Committee, which educates them on their rights to a minimum wage and overtime pay. Enforcing those rights is another battle.
At a time when legal protections for immigrants are being very publicly curtailed in Arizona—which just enacted a draconian law allowing police to stop anyone merely suspected of being in the country illegally—a less-publicized but equally pernicious infringement on immigrant rights is coming to the fore in this state: wage theft.
"Wage theft is not a criminal offense in Washington," says Arielle Rosenberg, spokeswoman for the Worker Defense Committee. "Which means you can be prosecuted for stealing someone's candy bar, but not for stealing their paycheck."
According to a 2009 study conducted by the National Employment Law Project, 68 percent of workers in low-wage industries lose an average of 15 percent of their wages annually due to wage theft. Frequently, the victims are immigrant workers whose bosses threaten them with deportation if they demand what they're owed. Other states are moving to combat this problem. In February, Florida's Miami-Dade County became the first county to make failing to pay employees within 14 days of work a criminal offense. San Francisco, Austin, and Denver have city ordinances that allow city prosecutors to file misdemeanor charges against employers in such situations. And cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans are following suit. But Washington lags behind, something Rosenberg and city council member Tim Burgess hope to change.
"This is about economic justice," says Burgess. "People should be paid when they work."
Immigrant workers in Washington essentially have two options for reclaiming stolen wages: sue their employers in civil court or publicly shame them into paying. But language is usually a barrier, as is the fear of their bosses contacting immigration officials.
Which is why Casa Latina is teaming up with Burgess and the city attorney's office to explore how current labor laws can be used to prosecute deadbeat employers. If they can't change things using existing laws, they say they'll pursue a city ordinance disallowing wage theft—something similar to New Orleans's proposed ordinance, which would punish offenders with a $500 dollar fine (on top of wages owed) and up to six months in jail.
"Last year, we helped workers reclaim over $94,000 in stolen wages," says Rosenberg. "Think of what we could do if we had the right laws and enforcement to back these people up."
There are some state laws currently on the books, but advocates say they're not yet strong enough. In 2006, the Washington State Legislature passed the Wage Payment Act to give immigrant workers an avenue for taking wage grievances to the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I). However, the L&I citations were often ignored by business owners and widely seen as toothless. In 2009, Casa Latina referred over 100 cases to L&I for review, but none received wage recompense, even though all cases that were judged favored the worker. This year the legislature strengthened the Wage Payment Act, but Rosenberg says there's still more to do.
In any case, Rosenberg adds, public exposure is the best way to begin fixing the problem. Which is why on Saturday, May 1, she will be marching along with thousands of others at the May Day march for immigration rights, where the Worker Defense Committee will unveil several new public campaigns to shame businesses guilty of stealing workers' wages. The march will begin at noon at Judkins Park in the Central District and end at Memorial Stadium in Seattle Center.