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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Guest opinion: Don’t reward wage theft violators

Bob Ferguson Special to The Spokesman-Review

Ask yourself: Should government award government contracts to those who willfully steal money from their workers?

Wage theft is a bigger problem than most realize, and it takes many forms. Working families lose billions of dollars to wage theft each year because crooked employers fail to pay legal minimum wages or overtime rates, require off-the-clock work or take improper pay deductions.

In 2012, more money was stolen from workers by their employers than all the combined money stolen in bank, gas station and convenience store robberies.

Those who work hard are entitled to the wages they earn. Not paying an employee’s wages is the same as stealing from that worker. Unfortunately, these two crimes are rarely treated the same, which is why I recently filed the second wage theft criminal prosecution ever brought by the state.

Along with criminal enforcement actions, I also believe the government should prevent lawbreakers from receiving taxpayer dollars. Consequently, I am proposing HB 1089 to the Legislature. This bipartisan legislation prohibits willful or repeat violators of the state wage theft laws from receiving state contracts for a period of three years.

The state spends billions of dollars every year on public works projects and the purchase of goods and services. However, the state currently does not consider whether a company follows the state’s basic minimum wage and wage payment laws in its contracting decisions. We know that 3 percent of all the state’s repeat wage theft violators are competing for state contracts. That’s wrong. Those who take advantage of working Washingtonians should be disqualified from seeking the benefits of state spending.

My bill also benefits businesses that play by the rules. Businesses that pay their workers appropriately are placed at a competitive disadvantage to those who reduce costs by skirting the state’s wage payment laws. By blocking businesses that commit wage theft from competing for state contracts, we can ensure that firms that play by the rules have a fair shot.

HB 1089, legislation sponsored by Sen. Pam Roach and Rep. Sam Hunt, passed the House of Representatives on a bipartisan, 60-38 vote. It now moves to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which is chaired by Spokane Sen. Mike Baumgartner.

As attorney general, my office works hard to ensure a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work. Abraham Lincoln once said, “To secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government.” We cannot afford to reward those who break our laws with taxpayer dollars.

Working Washingtonians are entitled to the wages they earn, and they deserve a government that will not reward employers that steal from them. I urge the Senate to act swiftly to amend the state’s responsible bidder criteria to include compliance with wage laws.

Bob Ferguson is the attorney general of the state of Washington.
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