Low-wage workers got a break Monday night, and maybe some overdue overtime pay, when the Spokane City Council stiffened penalties for businesses that violate wage laws.
Council members backed the proposal on a 6-1 vote, with only Councilman Mike Fagan dissenting. The new law will make it a misdemeanor for employers to violate wage laws and allow the city to deny or revoke business licenses from workplaces violating minimum wage, overtime and other compensation rules.
“It is a problem. The local and national data we’ve seen shows that people don’t get paid for work they perform,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart, pointing to a 2008 study that shows that two-thirds of the nearly 4,400 workers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles who took part experienced wage theft in the week previous to being surveyed.
“We can all agree, you should get paid for the work you do,” Stuckart said, noting that wage violations usually happen against those paid the least.
According to Matthew Folsom, an assistant city attorney who helped craft the law, employees are denied wages in a number of ways, including not being paid a minimum wage or for overtime, working off the clock, getting bad checks and not getting paid at all.
“The average low-wage worker loses about 15 percent of their earnings each year to wage theft,” Folsom said. “This ordinance helps level the playing field.”
If employees suspect wage theft, Folsom said they should call the police or the state Labor and Industries department.
Stuckart and Folsom both said the state Department of Labor & Industries is “overtaxed” and unable to investigate the number of complaints that come in dealing with wage theft.
Tim Church, spokesman for the department, supported those assertions.
“There are 16 investigators who investigate wage theft complaints. We receive about 5,000 wage complaints in a given year, and we are required by law to investigate within 60 days,” he said. “That’s a lot of cases to investigate, if you look at the math.”
Fagan said he voted against the law primarily on worries that it would protect immigrants who enter the country illegally. Part of the law says that an employer cannot threaten to report an undocumented worker to immigration officials if the worker seeks fair compensation.
“We’re actually extending protections to illegal aliens once again,” Fagan said. “Those people are not supposed to be here to begin with. Those employers should not be employing those people, so why are we even discussing that?”
Fagan said he was “not so sure” that the new ordinance was lawful under federal immigration rules. Stuckart said it was reviewed by the city’s legal team.
“We are not violating any laws with this law,” Stuckart said. “I’m guaranteeing that.”
Folsom stood to offer more background and found himself in Fagan’s crosshairs.
“It was also modeled after the city of Seattle’s ordinance, which has been on the books for about three years,” Folsom said.
“Oh, well that explains everything, sir,” Fagan shot back. “You know, we are not Seattle. We are Spokane.”
Councilman Mike Allen disagreed with Fagan’s opposition to the section protecting undocumented workers, saying, “If they’re being used, even though they’re illegal aliens, they should have some channel to get paid for what they’re doing.”
Allen reluctantly voted for the ordinance, but only after dismissing it as “feel good politics,” and “an East Coast problem.” He said he was troubled that no local analysis was done to determine the extent of the problem in Spokane.
“It bothers me that we have almost no quantitative analysis that we can truly use,” Allen said. “My quantitative judgment side has a problem with it, but my philosophical side supports it.”
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