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 significant problem in low-wage industries.
The 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. 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.
The 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. 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.”
“Enforcement of wage theft crimes is much more than just recovering money owed to the worker who earned it,” said 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.”
Addressing the damage on an individual and societal scale, Council President Burgess said, “Wage theft is an insidious crime that causes great harm to workers and our whole community. This new partnership with the federal government is another step toward rooting out unscrupulous businesses that abuse their workers.”
“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.”