Who doesnt love a cheap burger?
Who doesn't love a cheap burger? Lester Black

This is not, it seems, a great time to be in the hamburger business. First, a local zine called out Dick’s Drive-In for their history of opposing minimum wage hikes. And as if that wasn’t enough hassle, now a labor group is shining a spotlight on reports of health and safety violations at the burger chain.

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The complaints, all of which were filed in the last week, detail some fairly unpleasant conditions: Employees exposed to COVID were encouraged to come to work before getting test results, some workers claim; there was a heater running in a puddle of water; there was mold in the freezer; the gloves workers wear melted onto skin when exposed to heat, which sent at least one person to the emergency room. It’s pretty bad, these workers allege!

But it’s also not at all unique to Dick’s, according to labor organizers.

“Pre-COVID, there was a lot of stuff constantly being overlooked,” said one former Dick’s employee who goes by Zeke Adams. “The condition of the floors, the way they handled the meat and cheese right next to each other, not worrying about sanitary solutions.”

Zeke recently left Dick’s after four years, mostly due to frustration over how they handled a misunderstanding with his vacation time, he said. But that wasn’t part of his complaint, which largely involves accusations of unsafe food-handling at the Capitol Hill location.

“It grossed me out,” he said. “I’ve been recommending people stop eating there.”

The accusations might not have risen to the public’s attention if not for the efforts of Working Washington, a nonprofit founded and funded in part by labor unions. A group of Dick’s employees approached the organization several months ago, and the group helped them file official complaints with the state this week, accompanied by a press release blitz.

The working conditions at Dick’s are emblematic of a “crisis of labor standards enforcement in our state,” a spokesperson for Working WA said in a press release. “Washington simply does not have the tools to adequately enforce our labor standards and keep workers safe and healthy.”

As luck would have it, Working WA has also been pushing heavily for a worker-protection bill that’s currently under consideration in the Senate. HB 1076 would allow employees to bring actions against employers on behalf of state agencies. The bill recently passed the House, and it’s up for consideration by a Senate committee this coming Monday, making this time particularly sensitive for demonstrating support or opposition.

Business groups, as you can imagine, are not wild about the bill, and said during a public hearing last month that existing enforcement mechanisms are sufficient.

But workers across the state at a wide range of businesses report being asked to work off the clock, dealing with safety hazards, and encountering harassment and discrimination, says Working WA spokesperson Sage Wilson. Working WA says labor violations are widespread, and employees are generally scared to file complaints.

“Most anyone who has a job with a boss who can fire them and cost them their rent knows why people don’t file right away,” Wilson says.

So why all the attention on Dick’s, if problems like these are so widespread? Wilson says that the timing has nothing to do with HB 1076’s hearing on Monday. “That was a coincidence,” he said, adding that the organization decided to highlight the complaints in an attempt to push Dick’s to reform.

“Dick’s is a particularly notable local employer with a good reputation, generally,” Wilson said. “A company like Dick’s, this is a pretty likely way to get them to fix the situation.”

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For their part, Dick’s is scrambling to deal with the unwanted publicity. This week they issued a boilerplate statement to the press, which is ironic, since a “boilerplate” sounds like the kind of machine that could cause serious burns.

According to the statement, Dick’s only learned about the complaints the day after most of them were filed. (According to the complaints, issues were brought to managers’ attention months ago.) “We are currently investigating this and will share more information as soon as we can,” the statement from Dick’s says.

If you’d like to weigh in on HB 1076, it’ll be heard by the Senate Committee on Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs at 9:30 a.m. this coming Monday, March 15, and you can sign up to speak here.