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FEATURE NEWS

WAGE STEALERS WATCH OUT:
Seattle Police join forces with Labor Dept. to catch wage thiefs

April 04, 2015




Graph show wage theft versus other property crimes (robbery, burglary, larceny, and auto theft) in terms of monetary loss. Source" Uniform Crime Reports, FBI 2012.


LARGER IMAGE of above chart. CLICK TO ENLARGE
(SEATTLE, WA.) -- The City of Seattle and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division have agreed formally to share information and coordinate enforcement efforts to combat wage theft, a major problem across the U.S. and an even bigger problem in low-wage industries.

"A Memorandum of Understanding – the first signed by the Wage and Hour Division with a city in its western region — aims to boost the Seattle Police Department’s ability to investigate alleged wage theft cases and, when warranted, forward them for review by the City Attorney’s Office," according to a Seattle Police statement.

In 2011 the City Council made wage theft – the intentional failure to pay or underpay an employee for work – a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Wage theft is the illegal withholding of wages or the denial of benefits that are rightfully owed to an employee. Wage theft, particularly from low wage legal or illegal immigrant workers, is common in the United States, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.

Wage theft can be conducted through various means such as: failure to pay overtime, minimum wage violations, employee misclassification, illegal deductions in pay, working off the clock, or not being paid at all. These violated rights have been guaranteed to workers in the United States since 1938 by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

City has power to revoke business licenses

The Seattle city ordinance sponsored by now-Council President Tim Burgess also gives the City the power to revoke business licenses for individuals convicted of the crime.

"Few workers have brought wage theft complaints to the City – only 11 were filed with SPD by April 2014 — and the cooperation with the federal government renews hopes of investigation and prosecution," according to the SPD statement.

Contributing to the lack of provable cases are the reluctance of workers to report wage theft; lack of proof that the worker performed the work; absence of proof of the compensation promised or scope of work, and lack of proof of the employer’s dishonest intent.

According to the formal agreement, the two agencies hope to “more effectively and efficiently communicate and cooperate on areas of common interest, including sharing training materials, providing employers and employees with compliance assistance information, and sharing information as appropriate.”

“People who commit wage theft often target and exploit our most vulnerable residents,” said Seattle Police Deputy Chief Carmen Best. “This partnership between the city of Seattle and the United States Department of Labor puts both local and federal law enforcement officers on the same page, creating better information flow and offering more options to hold wage thieves accountable.”

“By coordinating closely and pooling our resources, we will be better suited to root out unscrupulous employers who shortchange their workers in order to maximize profits,” said Ruben Rosalez, western regional administrator for the Wage and Hour Division. “Seattle’s workforce will benefit from this new partnership.”

Holding employers accountable

Enforcement of wage theft crimes is much more than just recovering money owed to the worker who earned it, according to City Attorney Pete Holmes. “Holding employers accountable for wage theft is a matter of preserving human dignity and protecting those who are most vulnerable in our community.”

Casa Latina, a non-profit organization in Seattle, lobbied for the ordinance that criminalized wage theft.

“Over the years Casa Latina has met hundreds of workers whose bosses have shorted their wages; some of them working for the same companies we have had cases against before,” said executive director Hilary Stern. “It takes all hands on deck to stop wage theft. We welcome this cross-agency cooperation to help build criminal cases against companies who use wage theft as a business model.”

“We applaud the efforts of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office to increase collaboration with the U.S. Department of Labor to address the issue of wage theft in the city,” said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

“Theft of wages is a problem that continues to plague community members generally and immigrant community members in particular. We welcome steps to ensure that unscrupulous individuals and entities who unlawfully deprive our neighbors of their hard-earned wages are held accountable," added Baron.





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