January is a time for new resolve, new goals — and new laws to go into effect. Almost every year, the changing calendar means new labor policies or updates.
For example, beginning on Jan. 1, the statewide minimum wage will reach its full value of $13.50, after voters approved a relatively quick rollout in 2016. A new Paid Family & Medical Leave Act, will go into effect, too, providing paid time off to Washington workers, even if their employers don’t cover it.
These changes don’t always get enough news coverage, which means a lot of workers don’t realize that anything has changed. It’s up to employers to keep themselves compliant with the law and to let their workers know what they’re entitled to. Unfortunately, many companies and managers will keep their employees in the dark about the reality of their rights in an attempt to pinch a penny. And very, very few — if any — will ever be caught.
A 2019 report released from the Yale Policy & Law Review cited studies demonstrating the prevalence of wage theft, including unlawful tip collection, forcing workers to work off the clock, or underpaying workers.
“In all, 68% of workers surveyed experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous week,” according to the report. That same report also states, quite plainly, that “an increase in the minimum wage will only benefit low-wage workers if employers comply with the law.”
The City of Seattle’s Office of Labor Statistics (OLS) is in charge of wage compliance, but the office is understaffed and, often, workers don’t even know what they should be earning or what they can do if they feel that they’ve been the victim of wage theft. They may also be hesitant to report wage theft if they’re undocumented. But, according to the OLS, “the City of Seattle does not ask about the immigration status of anyone using City services.” They go on to add that “it is a violation of the ordinance for an employer to tell or suggest to a person filing a wage claim that the employer will report suspected citizenship or immigration status of an employee or a family member to a government agency.”
Employees are often expected to fend for themselves, which requires both knowledge of the law and how to report or recoup their losses. But that can be difficult for folks who are already working with barriers, like limited English proficiency or literacy.
But the law is the law — and workers who have worked are entitled to their full wages and benefits. Workers who feel that they’ve been shorted this year or in past years are encouraged to reach out to the city of Seattle or a nonprofit, like the Washington Wage Claim Project, and take action.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy analyst working in Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Bust, Fast Company, NPR, and other publications.
Read the full Jan. 1-7 issue.
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