Washington, Seattle Struggle to Help Workers Collect Millions in Stolen Wages

Representatives of Working Washington, UFCW 21 and Casa Latina picket the Queen City Grill in June.  Photo: Allegra Abramo.

On a sunny mid-June  evening, two dozen protesters in scarlet, green and gold T-shirts paced in a circle in front of Queen City Grill in Belltown.

“Wage theft is a crime,” they chanted. “Pay your workers or do the time.”

One protester’s sign: “You pay, we leave!”

The protest was organized to pressure the restaurant owner on behalf of former employee Fernando Moreno Ruiz, who said he was owed more than $5,500 in back wages.

Moreno Ruiz said he worked for the owner for more than six years. But last year, his paychecks started bouncing. Alone in the U.S. for the past decade, Moreno Ruiz counted on the wages to support his wife and two children in Mexico.

By December he couldn’t wait any longer. He quit. The lost wages almost cost him his marriage, he said, because his wife thought he didn’t want to send money home anymore.

“I tried to do honorable work, and he didn’t know how to honor me as a worker,” Moreno Ruiz said of his boss.

The protest against Queen City Grill was organized by Casa Latina, which runs a day worker center and educational programs for immigrants. The Seattle organization gets hundreds of calls a year from workers like Moreno Ruiz who say employers have failed to pay them some or all of their agreed wages.

The protesters marched for only 10 minutes before Moreno Ruiz and a Casa Latina organizer were called into a back office.

The owner, Robert Eickof, never came out of the office, nor did he respond to several phone calls later from InvestigateWest seeking comment.

But after a few minutes, Moreno Ruiz emerged. Back out on the sidewalk, he beamed as he flashed $800 in crisp $100 bills and a promissory note for the rest.

A broken system

Seattle may soon find that passing the $15 minimum wage was the easy part. The real challenge will be making sure workers actually get what they deserve under the law.

However satisfying that June evening in Belltown proved for Fernando Moreno Ruiz, that is not the way the system is supposed to work.

In the last eight years both the Washington Legislature and the Seattle City Council passed laws to address what’s coming to be understood as a huge problem: Wage theft. That’s withholding wages or denying benefits rightfully owed to an employee. It’s a misdemeanor under city and state law. Widespread violations of minimum wage laws, overtime provisions and other examples of wage theft have been well documented in recent decades.

And yet in hundreds of cases annually, Washington fails to retrieve workers’ shorted wages, a review of state records by InvestigateWest shows. Meanwhile, the city ordinance has yet to bring about even a single prosecution of employers who withhold pay, InvestigateWest found.

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Pay Violations Rampant in Low-Wage Industries Despite Enforcement Efforts

A warehouse workers protest in Illinois. Photo: Peoplesworld/Flickr

For workers stuck on the bottom rung, living on poverty wages is hard enough. But many also are victims of wage theft, a catch-all term for payroll abuses that cheat workers of income they are supposedly guaranteed by law.

Editor's Note
InvestigateWest is proud to feature this piece by FairWarning, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.

Over the last few years employers ranging from baseball’s San Francisco Giants to Subway franchises to Farmer’s Insurance have been cited for wage violations. More often, though, wage abuses are not reported by victims or punished by authorities despite being routine in some low-wage industries.

“If you steal from your employer, you’re going to be hauled out of the workplace in handcuffs,” said Kim Bobo, a Chicago workers rights advocate and author. “But if your employer steals from you, you’ll be lucky to get your money back.

Victims typically are low wage, low-skilled workers desperate to hang on to their jobs. Frequently, they are immigrants—the most vulnerable and least apt to speak up. “They know that if they complain, there’s always someone else out there who is willing to take their job,” said Maria Echaveste, a former labor official during the Clinton administration who is now at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

While heart-breaking for employees, wage theft also robs federal and state treasuries of many billions of dollars in taxes, and puts employers who play by the rules at a serious competitive disadvantage.

Fear Stifles Complaints of Wage Abuse

A protest in Seattle. Photo by Alex Garland/Demotix.

Karim Ameri allegedly decided to play hardball after learning that his Los Angeles recycling business was under investigation for allegedly failing to pay the minimum wage or overtime to workers putting in 60-hour weeks.

Editor's Note
InvestigateWest is proud to feature this piece by FairWarning, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.

Court records say Ameri pressured employees of Recycling Innovations, a string of bottle-and-can redemption centers, to lie to federal officials about his company’s pay practices. He allegedly threatened to fire workers or report them to immigration authorities if they cooperated with U.S. Labor Department investigators.

In one court document, Ameri is said to have “threatened to break an employee’s arm” — although an accountant for the business said Ameri got tripped up by language barriers and didn’t mean it as a real threat of violence.

Federal officials in December took the unusual step of getting a restraining order to bar threats or interference with their investigation. Without admitting wrongdoing, the company in May agreed in a settlement to pay more than $74,000 in back wages and damages to 13 underpaid workers. Ameri declined to comment.

The case reflects a fact of life about wage abuses. Violations often are concealed, and regulators hindered, because workers fear what will happen if they speak up.

Member Exclusive: Fishing for answers in Duwamish River records

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We just published our latest SIDEBAR — an exclusive monthly dispatch from inside our newsroom just for InvestigateWest members.

For August we have a piece by Executive Director Robert McClure about getting, and not getting, government records into the public eye:

State and federal freedom-of-information laws give investigative journalists a look behind the curtain at the internal workings of government. An essential tool, they allow us to help the public better understand what government is doing and saying on its behalf.

The people can better govern their governors, in other words.

So we were recently taken aback by how many documents the City of Seattle and King County withheld in one of our latest rounds of Freedom Of Information requests. The sheer volume of records withheld suggests an epic legal battle brewing over the Duwamish River cleanup.

To read the rest...

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State delayed years on toxic fish; Inslee to outline his plan today

A 'Healthy Choice' program brochure advising consumers about safe fish consumption.
Credit: Washington Department of Health

Ten minutes and four slides. That’s what a Washington Department of Health staffer responsible for warning the public about contaminants in fish was allotted to impress then-Health Secretary Mary Selecky about the importance of the issue.

Lots of luck, warned former Department of Health toxicology chief Rob Duff — Selecky and her crew are “skeptics” who “are not very interested” in environmental health.

And yet, wrote Duff: “If not DOH, who?”

That was early 2008. In the months that followed, Health Department staffers would continue to raise contaminated fish as a public health issue, records and interviews show.  Among their concerns: a long-known error in the state formula that controls how much toxic pollution can be dumped into waterways by factories, sewage-treatment plants and other polluters.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since repeatedly warned the state to fix the error.

Now, a year and a half into the Inslee administration, the governor is scheduled to announce his plan today in Olympia.

As More Imported Foods Reach the Dinner Table, Holes Remain in FDA Safety Net

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In April 2012, a team of inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigated a seafood company in southern India that had been exporting tons of frozen yellowfin tuna to the United States. What they found was not appetizing: water tanks rife with microbiological contamination, rusty carving knives, peeling paint above the work area, unsanitary bathrooms and an outdoor ice machine covered with insects and “apparent bird feces,” according to the report.

The FDA issued an “import alert” that barred Moon Fishery India Pvt. Ltd. from shipping fish to the United States. But the damage to public health had been done. By the time the FDA got around to inspecting the plant, a salmonella outbreak was erupting around the country. Ultimately, 425 people in 28 states and the District of Columbia were sickened, with victims ranging from babies to octogenarians. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 55 people were hospitalized.

The fact that tons of bad fish had sailed into this country was not a surprise. The FDA has been outgunned and overmatched for years as a rising tide of imported food has found a place at the U.S. dinner table. Because of budget constraints, ordinarily only 1 percent to 2 percent of food imports are physically inspected by the agency at the border each year. Typically, operations such as the one in India that supply foods for the U.S. market are inspected only if something goes terribly wrong.

And the threat of illness from imports may be growing. According to an analysis of FDA data by FairWarning and the Investigative News Network, the FDA today rejects about the same number of shipments of foreign food as it did a decade ago – when imports were less than half the current level.

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Meet a journalist: Allegra Abramo

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This summer, Allegra Abramo joins InvestigateWest from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where she is studying for a Master's degree in journalism with a focus on health and science. She's the kind of journalist we love — skeptical and interesting, with a fondness for data and people alike. Here are a few questions we asked so we could introduce her to you.

What made you want to be a journalist?

When I took a mid-career pause to assess how I wanted to spend the rest of my working life, I realized research and writing are the tasks I enjoy the most. I’m happiest when I’m learning something new every day, and I have the annoying habit of asking “why?” a lot. Journalism seemed like the perfect fit. It gives me an excuse to interview a scientist one day and a community leader the next, to grapple with the nitty-gritty of how research was done and its limitations, and how policies and programs are affecting people on the ground. Then I get to delve into reports and scrutinize data, and finally weave what I learn into a story that helps people understand the world.

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Happy Birthday, InvestigateWest!

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Associate Director Jason Alcorn. Photo: Sarah Stuteville.

For InvestigateWest's five-year anniversary party on June 19, we invited Peggy Watt to say a few words about InvestigateWest from her vantage point training young journalists, including several former IW interns. Watt chairs the journalism department at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. Here are her prepared remarks.

So you are five years old. I have been thinking a bit about 5-year-olds lately, because my grandson Spencer Glenn will be five on his next birthday. Here are the things I have been noticing about 5-year-olds....

They are inquisitive.

And InvestigateWest is certainly that, by keeping investigative reporting alive and well in the Pacific Northwest. I have enjoyed your work in environmental, health and political issues, and will be watching to see what you explore next.

Five-year-olds are energetic.

I’ve covered Silicon Valley startups, and I see the same vibe at InvestigateWest. Robert came to Western as a visiting professional in the company’s first year. We work our Visiting Pros pretty hard, scheduling them to speak to as many classes as possible during the day and partying with the faculty at night, but he kept up – and without caffeine. One of his stories to the students was how he moved to Seattle and gave up coffee. You’ll have to ask him about that one.

Five-year-olds are creative.

And InvestigateWest has been creative in presenting its journalism, using online presentations, galleries, solid long-form journalism, a range of reporting methods and presentation methods.

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