Right now, the City of Seattle is trying to figure out how to better fund the Office of Labor Standards, the city department that enforces labor laws like the minimum wage and educates workers about their rights. To understand why that’s necessary, look no further than a recent University of Washington study on the impact of the minimum wage among employers and workers. Among those surveyed, 72 percent of workers, and 91 percent of immigrant workers, have just a vague understanding or no knowledge about Seattle’s minimum wage law. Having worked as worker rights advocates for the last several years, we are not surprised. Even as Seattle passes progressive, pro-worker labor laws, many workers don’t know their rights.
Every day, CASA Latina and the Fair Work Center educate and support workers whose rights have been violated in myriad ways. One thing we’ve known for years is that too few workers understand what constitutes wage theft. Being paid below the minimum wage, not being allowed to take your legally required breaks, or being forced to work off the clock are all forms of wage theft. According to a national study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, three times more money is stolen from workers' pockets on payday than all robberies combined.
But now we’re hearing from workers about another way their employers are stealing from them: not paying them during training.
Take for example one of the latest cases to come through the doors at the Fair Work Center. A month or so ago, “Joe” started working at a Chevron gas station in South King County and was told he would not be paid for his first couple of shifts, including shifts he worked alone, since they were considered “training.” Joe knew this wasn’t right and left his job after complaining to management. “Company policy,” he was told. The problem with that policy is that it is illegal. The Fair Work Center is now trying to help Joe get paid for the work he did, but his story is not unique to a suburban gas station.
We hear numerous stories of this practice of not paying for training shifts in the restaurant industry. In some restaurants, new wait staff are unpaid for training shifts that include serving actual paying customers. New kitchen staff are often told they need to work the line during a shift to see how they perform. Of course, proving one’s ability to do a job can be a part of a fair hiring practice. But cooking a meal for an interview is a lot different than cooking for a room full of customers. When the employer is profiting from your training shift, that is work, and you should be paid for it.
We believe every worker should know their basic rights on the job, which is why we support expanding the Office of Labor Standards. Fair Work Center and the Fair Work Collaborative—10 community-based organizations that provide “know your rights” trainings to low-wage workers—have trained 50 new trainers and over 3,000 workers in the past year, and helped workers recover $25,000 in unpaid time off and back wages. CASA Latina has been doing this work for over 15 years. In that time, they’ve helped more than 200 workers win back more than $250,000 in back wages.
Despite our efforts, we know workplace violations, like not paying for training, are still commonplace. So, we’re asking you: If your employer isn’t paying you for training shifts or training courses that you are required to take, report them. Contact CASA Latina at 206-745-2045 or the Fair Work Center at 1-844-485-1195. You can also submit information online here. If you’re afraid of retaliation, we can keep your complaint anonymous.
Simply put, training is work. This has been the law of the land in Washington for years, and whether your employer professes to know that or not, you should know your rights as a worker. It is not okay to make you work without pay!
Cariño Barragán Talancón is the program manager at Casa Latina. Nicole Vallestero Keenan is executive director of the Fair Work Center.