On July 11, fast-food worker and single mother of three Juanita Porter alleged in front of Seattle City Council members and a packed council chamber that her employer, Taco Bell, steals her wages—despite the fact that these same council members passed legislation two years ago making it a crime for employers to shortchange their workers on wages, tips, or overtime.
"They tried to tell me I didn't work 71 hours, [that] the computer kept me clocked in when I wasn't there," Porter said. "I clock in manually, so I don't see how that's possible... I earned that money."
Porter wasn't alone. Nor is the wage-theft law the only progressive policy that seems to go unenforced lately.
On the steps of City Hall two weeks later, a former Taco Bell employee, 21-year-old Caroline Durocher, talked about the hundreds of dollars in wages she lost when, she claims, her manager clocked out staff an hour after closing, even when they were still working. For anywhere from a half-hour to three hours a night, she said, she was "scrubbing floors, doing dishes, cleaning bathrooms"—for free. Durocher said she filed a wage-theft claim with the police department. She says she's still waiting for follow-up from police on her case.
But despite receiving a few dozen reports of wage theft, the Seattle City Attorney's Office has never used the law to prosecute an employer. "At this point in time, we have not filed any wage theft cases," assistant city attorney Craig Sims said last Thursday, because the cases referred were "not factually sufficient."
In April 2011, the city made it a gross misdemeanor, punishable by loss of a city business license, for Seattle employers to pay less than they were contracted to pay. It was designed to address a national problem: 64 percent of low-wage workers experience wage theft each week, according to a 2008 study by the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project, and UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. For those workers in blue-collar fields like construction, manufacturing, fast-food work, and even home health care, the theft can eliminate about 15 percent of their annual income.
For the company's part, Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch says in a statement that the fast-food giant and its franchisees must follow all applicable laws, "and we have zero tolerance for actions that don't meet our policy or legal requirements."
The city council has approved other progressive laws in the last few years: One would endow all employees in Seattle with paid sick time off, another make it illegal to ask women to stop breastfeeding in public, and yet another ban employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history, to name a few. But while the city council is happy to pass them, it seems little enforcement backs them up.
For example, a July report released by the University of Washington shows that more than two-thirds of Seattle businesses "were noncompliant or in only partial compliance" with the city's paid sick leave ordinance when it went into effect last September. The law, which applies to more than 11,000 employers, was designed to discourage employees from working while sick by not monetarily penalizing them for missing work. But more than a quarter of the 1,400 employers surveyed "offer neither paid sick leave nor undesignated paid time off to any employee." Furthermore, the study found that "among employers who know about the Ordinance and do not currently offer paid leave, only four in ten plan to change their policies."
"When I tried to use my paid sick leave, I was told by my boss that I was confused and the law didn't apply to me, and I still had to work," says a Starbucks barista who asked to remain anonymous. (Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment by press time.) Since the law took effect, Seattle workers have lodged 135 paid sick leave complaints with the city against 69 businesses—including Starbucks, the Downtown Seattle Association, and Amazon.
The Seattle Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reports that most complaints (including those against Starbucks, the Downtown Seattle Association, and Amazon) have been settled. OCR director Julie Nelson says that in a majority of cases, employers modified their policies to embrace the ordinance, while others were already following the rules. Currently, charges are only being considered against one business.
"The goal is compliance; we don't operate with a gotcha mentality," explains Nelson.
The problem, city officials concede, is that the complaint process is confusing. For example, complaints concerning wage theft must be lodged with the Seattle Police Department, while paid sick leave and the city's new ex-offender job legislation, which is slated to go into effect November 1, are investigated by the OCR. Complaint-based systems are arguably unequal, since some populations—such as people in poverty or with language barriers—tend not to report crimes due to a history of discrimination and mistrust of law enforcement, lack of familiarity with the complaint system, or fear of retaliation.
"If you rely on a complaint-based system, it puts an inordinate burden on the individual," explains Council Member Nick Licata. "They will always be concerned that they'll be punished or retaliated against by their employer—even though retaliation is illegal."
SPD spokesman Sergeant Sean Whitcomb acknowledges the victims of these sorts of crimes are often "vulnerable populations."
"You don't just pass this law off and say, 'Yup, we're good,' and expect everyone to come forward." That said, the issue of wage theft is "a big deal to us," says Whitcomb, who adds that each complaint is referred to burglary detectives for follow-up. "To say that it's not a priority is incorrect," he adds.
Licata says that the city should consider creating a department that promotes enforcement. "I think there is a need to consolidate these programs under one division that would have sufficient funding to do outreach and do some spot checks," he explains. "You don't have to do many, but a few spot checks would get their attention."