News Aug 19, 2015 at 4:00 am

The Most Controversial Piece of a New Bill Would Close an Important Loophole for Low-Wage Workers—but Will the Business Community Stop It?

SEATTLE WORKERS: Currently, employees have to go through an administrative civil process if their employer isn’t paying them adequately. alex garland


Because if the employer goes to trial and wins, they have spent $450,000 on legal fees that they will never recover from the Plaintiff. They can easily spend $250,000 pre-trial.
It seems to me, that companies should take it as read that they have to pay all of the money owed to employees to those employees, and not keep it for themselves. Why is an outreach campaign needed? Everyone knows to pay their bills.

And if it is due to the business not knowing the law, well that is on them. Due diligence is a thing, and ignorance of the law is not a good defense. Especially if the violation is about something as obvious as paying your workers' wages.
@1 - what source do you have for that very large number for legal fees? Are you seriously telling us that a labor dispute would cost MORE than the defense of a murder charge for a defendant? I find that highly difficult to believe, especially since the lawsuit would be a civil suit, not criminal, and more likely will be settled out of court, just how 90% of all civil suits are settled.
manofoar, I have worked in senior positions in non-profits organizations. I have seen 1/2 dozen employee suits. Typically, every employee of these small organizations, and as many former employees as possible, of the defendant get deposed. That is unlike a murder trial where there are often only a few witnesses and many of those witnesses, like police officers, lab workers, evidence technicians, etc. are already being paid by the State. In a civil employment lawsuit, the plaintiff is on a fishing expedition, because in civil court, unlike criminal court, admissible evidence is a pattern of conduct by the defendant, even if plaintiff would have had no direct knowledge of it, or suffered from it when it was directed at others. You can make the case in civil court that if the employer didn't pay (or discriminated against, or harassed) Joe, Susan, John, Frank, Sally, Ann, Bubba, etc., etc,. etc. ........... it is therefore more probable than not that the person brining the suit also wasn't paid (or was discriminated against, harassed, etc).

10 or 50, written questionnaires, dozens or hundreds of pages long, might be served on the defense, with a court order to answer them. They get answered in consultation with an attorney for each and every question and each and every individual answering them. Those are followed by pre-trial depositions, with court reporters and attorney's for the employer, the plaintiff, and individual employees (who get named separately, and demand and get employer paid legal representation since they are involved because of their employment). It all adds up really fast. The cases that went all the way and exonerated the employer were the most expensive for the employer because of their own legal fees. The courts in those cases ordered the Plaintiff to pay them, but the Plaintiffs had income and assets that were so small that it was impossible to collect. The plaintiff's attorney suffered similar non-payment for the same reason, but they chalk it up to the cost of doing business. In 1 case out of 10 or 20 there isn't a settlement or judgment that they can use to get the plaintiff to pay their fees.

The settlements, on condition the suit is dismissed, are in the five figure range, with no admission of wrongdoing, because it costs so much to fight and win. But if you don't fight and win, then you get more suits, because the lawyers for plaintiffs see little risk in expending time and resources on behalf of their clients, because they get paid by the defendant as a condition of settlement. In a couple of cases I am aware of, the employee in question had filed suits against a number of prior employers, gotten five figure settlements and moved on, before suing the non-profit employer I was associated with. These lawsuits arise from legitimate wrongdoing by the employer in some cases. In others its an employee that was mad they got disciplined, fired, or not promoted for lawful reasons, but they make a case that it was for unlawful reasons to change the subject and the focus from them and their conduct. As long as the lawyer for the employee can keep some of the allegations made in some dispute or limited probability that the allegation MIGHT be true, the court allows the case to continue. After all that is the point of a civil case, is to force discovery and disclosure of facts, and to get what is discovered in front of a jury so they can be the impartial deciders. To cut that off early, even if the case is weak, is contrary to the purpose of a civil court and allowing everyone access to the courts. So I don't have a good answer that protects employee's rights to access courts and make their case, but doesn't cost employers, their insurance carriers, and their customers a small fortune for cases that have little or no merit.

Most of these cases, by their very nature are subject to interpretation and nuance with no clear smoking gun. What is clear is somebody didn't get promoted, got fired, etc. The plaintiff says its because their supervisor is a closet racist, sexist, etc. the "looks" and "mannerisms" of the boss created a hostile work environment, etc. The defendant says its because the employee did crappy work. It comes down to trying to determine the motive in the employers or supervisors head. Its really hard to prove what someone was thinking or disprove that it was because of improper, unlawful motivation. In the case of pay, was the employee ordered to work off the clock or not to take breaks for months or years. If there is an explicit order, then its an open and shut case. But what about more subtle "pressure", "hints", etc. Was there subtle pressure or not. If you are the employee, prove that subtle unspoken pressure. If you are the employer, disprove it. Meanwhile the clock is running on the lawyers sitting in the room.
Just a Slog PSA: do not take legal advice from "lawyer in his own mind" georgeingeorgetown.

Not saying he is necessarily wrong, but no one has any reason to believe he is not making everything up.
Seems like there should be an easy way to prove willfullness, without having to go through a tremendous amount of discovery. Require employees, before filing suit, to make a written demand for the back pay, with reasonable specificity for why they believe it is owed. Something as simple as "Dear [Employer], During the last 20 weeks, I worked an average of 40 hours per week for a total of 800 hours. You only paid me $8000, which is $4000 less than the minimum wage. Either pay me the back pay, plus statutory interest of [5/10/15/whatever] percent, or I'm going to sue."

If the employer doesn't respond in writing by either paying what is due, or giving a reasonable explanation (with supporting documentation) for why it believes the requested money isn't owed (e.g. "Dear Employee, your time records, enclosed herewith, indicate that you only worked 500 hours, not 800 hours."), then there should be an irrebuttable presumption that the non-payment was willful and the employer has to pay triple the amount owed plus court costs. If they pay when requested, or provide a reasonable explanation for non-payment, even if that explanation turns out to be wrong (e.g. the employer's time-card reader had unknowingly stopped working on weekends), then it's not willful, and the employer just pays back pay plus the statutory amount of interest. If the employer's claim holds up after a trial, the employee eats his/her own legal fees.

Such a system, where there is a burden on the employee and the employer to state their positions up front, would limit the scope of any discovery and would dissuade nuisance suits, since the employer could have a near safe-harbor against triple damages (few employees are going to shred their relationship with their boss and risk paying their own legal fees if they haven't been genuinely stiffed and there isn't a huge windfall at the end of the rainbow.)
@1- I think you're overestimating the amount the plaintiff earning minimum wage is able to attend on their legal team. Especially when their best case recovery is still only $33/unpaid hour.

@3- again, the punitive damages here are small, even at 3x back pay. Also, yes, the employer should have to be proven guilty, but not willfully negligent. "Ignorance" of the law is no excuse (ignorance in quotes because there's no way any Seattle business owner doesn't know these laws).
But if they enforce this, unemployment in Seattle will go lower than the current 3.7% rate


Never mind
Suing in court is not cheap. Most workplace laws were written by, of, and for the Upper Class .Kill the Greedsters. --- & & .
Effectively this will, over time, force most of the small independent businesses out of business and a take over of the corporate business. Say what you will of the Walmarts, K-marts, Costcos and such they all tend to run with a keen eye to the legal track. Getting hired in at those places requires all kinds of paperwork. The small businesses will simply be forced out because of all the legal ramifications. The corporates are also big enough that they can simply close up shop if they think things are getting out of hand. Walmart is known for this.

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