City council member Tim Burgess, whose forum on human trafficking drew more than 700 attendees, now plans to propose legislation to crack down on the practice of wage theft---hiring people and then paying them less than promised or not paying them at all, a practice similar to trafficking in that it preys on vulnerable individuals, particularly illegal immigrants.
At a council committee meeting yesterday, council members heard from an immigrant who had been the victim of wage theft, along with advocates who work to recover people's stolen wages.
Juan Coronado told committee members that he was hired by a Seattle-based company called SMI Building Services, which promised him $15 an hour to do janitorial work in buildings around Seattle. Coronado, speaking through an interpreter, told council members the company "held back" his first month's wages, paying him only after he had worked there two months (and then for just the second month's work). When he finally got paid, he said, his wage was only $6 an hour---well under the $15 an hour he was promised, and less than Washington State's $8.67 minimum wage.
Eventually, Coronado said, the company owed him more than $8,000 in lost wages, a situation he said he shared with "at least 20" other employees at the company. When he complained, he said, "the [response] was, if you don't like it, leave. We've got 100 more people waiting for your job."
Since then, Coronado---like many of those who seek redress from wage theft, according to Casa Latina staffer Cariño Barraga---has contacted the state Department of Labor and Industries only to be faced with a stark choice: Hire your own attorney, or file a claim with L&I that may or may not go anywhere and will almost certainly take several months or longer to reach any kind of resolution. Once a worker decides on one avenue---take their chances with L&I, or hire an attorney at unknown cost---they can't go back, Barraga said.
The choice puts workers like Coronado between a rock and a hard place: L&I is unlikely to retrieve any funds from repeat offenders like his employer (in fact, Barraga said, the company that hired Coronado has failed to pay multiple fines levied against him, much less workers' unpaid wages), but attorneys are expensive---far beyond the reach of the majority of recent immigrants to the United States.
In response to what he called an "incomplete" system for pursuing and prosecuting employers who steal wages, Burgess says he'll propose legislation that would specify that, under city law, "theft of services" (which is already illegal) includes wage theft; criminalize retaliation against workers for reporting wage theft; and allow the city to revoke business licenses of companies that engage in the practice.
That legislation should be ready in the next three weeks, a staffer for Burgess said.
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