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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 systemSeattle 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.
For many Washington workers hoping to recover a few thousand dollars or less in wages, their best alternative is often to file a complaint with the Department of Labor & Industries. But justice is often neither swift nor certain. Labor & Industries has just 16 investigators to pursue up to 4,000 cases per year. The complaints include alleged minimum wage violations and outright refusal to pay for work done.Read our related article, “Washington, Seattle Struggle to Help Workers Collect Millions in Stolen Wages”Millions of dollars at stakeSince 2009, Labor & Industries has collected more than $11.6 million in unpaid wages for workers in Washington. Yet that’s only a little more than half the total wages the state has declared workers are owed: Nearly $10 million in unpaid wages remain uncollected, even as the average wait for a worker to recover the pay due has shortened to just over the state-mandated 60 days.Hover over each bar to see how major industries in Washington state measure up in total upaid wages and how much the state has collected.