Winning in Court Just the First Step for Bellingham Wage Theft Victims

When workers get cheated out of wages, it’s often not enough just to win a court order for back pay. Often the court ruling is a hollow victory because the employer has gone out of business or claims to have little or no money to pay the judgment.

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.

That’s the challenge likely facing 101 workers who a jury last month awarded $1.3 million in back pay and damages from the co-owners of a restaurant and a spa in Bellingham, Wash. A lawyer for the employers said there is no way they will be able to pay.

The case, detailed in a FairWarning story InvestigateWest published last year, was brought by the U.S. Department of Labor against Huang “Jackie” Jie and Zhao “Jenny” Zeng Hong and their businesses. The government’s civil suit highlighted the issue of low-skill immigrant workers who are victims of wage theft but resist complaining to authorities because they fear retaliation by their employers.

Federal officials alleged an array of workplace abuses by Huang and Zeng, who once were married but divorced in 2013. Also named as defendants were their businesses, which operated under the names J&J Mongolian Grill and Spa Therapy in a Bellingham mall. Both closed in recent months.

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Senate Committee Guts Inslee Plan to Clean Up Toxics in Fish

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Credit: Flickr/GovInslee

With the feds pressing Gov. Jay Inslee to better protect consumers from toxic chemicals in fish, a Senate committee gutted a potentially pivotal bill to allow the state to set up a new toxic-cleanup program.

Inslee now opposes the legislation, saying it would leave him without tools he needs to head off federal intervention in Washington’s water-pollution-control system.

Inslee’s toxic-cleanup plan calls for attacking pollution at its source, even before the pollutants can get into waterways where they accumulate in fish that are then eaten by consumers. Inslee contends that his approach would be more effective than traditional cleanup methods focused on industrial and sewage discharges. Most pollution nowadays comes from stormwater — a foul mixture of pollutants that washes off roadways, parking lots and other hard surfaces when it rains.

Inslee’s plan — and the focus of the legislation (HB 1472) — is to identify the most dangerous chemicals, track them back to their source and look for safer alternatives.

Energy Code Edits Run Out of Juice

Editor's Note: We're starting a semi-regular column on bills that couldn’t find majority support in Olympia and what their demise can tell us about state government. Follow all of InvestigateWest’s Olympia reporting and let us know what you think.

Changes to the state’s energy code that won bipartisan support in the Senate nearly made it to the finish line but died this week when SB 5804 failed to get past the Democrat-controlled House Technology and Economic Development Committee.

The energy code — which sets minimum efficiency standards as part of the statewide building code — is no stranger to legislative tinkering, with proposed changes showing up nearly every session. The last major change happened in 2009, when lawmakers set a target for buildings built in 2031 to be 70% more energy efficient than those built to the 2006 code.  Since then, two cycles of energy code amendments have improved new building energy efficiency by about 25%, according to the State Energy Office. So there’s a long way to go. But this year’s legislation might well have moved the state in the opposite direction.

This year’s bill, backed by the Washington Association of Realtors and the Association of Washington Business among others, came from Senate Democrat Marko Liias of Mukilteo. It would have meant big changes to how the State Building Code Council considers new energy code requirements.

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Energy advocates charged up, but legislators divided over efficiency bill

A state senate committee heard testimony on HB 1100, a bill to set efficiency standards for battery chargers, on Tuesday.

OLYMPIA — Look around an average home and you’ll find 11 battery chargers re-juicing various electrical devices from toothbrushes to lawnmowers, says one study. Cell phones, laptops, power tools – the list of little-noticed power sucks goes on. The Washington Energy Office estimates that Washington residents together own about 30 million battery chargers.

Holding these small, numerous and largely overlooked energy users to efficiency standards like those in Oregon and California could eventually save Washington consumers $27 million a year. That’s the argument of environmentalists and other proponents of legislation (HB 1100) that has passed Washington’s Democratic-controlled House but faces an uncertain future in the Republican-ruled Senate.

On the other side of the debate stand electronics manufacturers and conservative politicians who argue that such government-imposed standards are just another unneeded regulation that will drive up the cost of battery-powered equipment. If such standards are needed, they say, they should be imposed at the national level.

State Health Officials Critical of Seattle Schools' Air-Pollution Report

A state report is critical of the methods used to evaluate the air quality at John Marshall School in Seattle – a 100-year-old building that was renovated before hundreds of elementary school students moved in last fall.

At issue is whether children could suffer harm from the pollution by generated by cars and trucks traveling on close-by roads and highways. In John Marshall's case, one corner of its lot in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood sits under Interstate 5.

After the school building was featured in several 2013 stories by KING 5 and the environmental journalism watchdog InvestigateWest, Seattle Public Schools paid Veritox $35,000 to study whether traffic pollution could harm students and staff.

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April 16: Join InvestigateWest in Portland

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You're invited! Join us after work on April 16 in Portland for the official launch of InvestigateWest in Oregon.

We've visited a lot, but now we're moving in!

Have a drink, mingle to jazz by the Bridgetown Saints, chat with our local partners, and hear about our vision for mixing powerful journalism with an engaged public. We'll have a brief program to introduce InvestigateWest, with happy hour to follow.

This event is free and open to the public, but space at Ecotrust is limited so please sign up and let us know you are planning to attend!

Event Details and RSVP

Questions? Email Jason Alcorn at jalcorn at invw.org.

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Homeowners' Payments at Stake in Olympia Solar Debate

Rooftop solar panels at Naches Heights vineyard in Yakima, Wash. Credit: Flickr/donireewalker.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington solar advocates are pushing to rescue a state program that provides cash payments to homeowners who install solar equipment.

With an end to the program looming, Inslee says action is needed now. But a legislative remedy is languishing in a House committee where the chairman is struggling to gain consensus from a variety of interests — including electric utilities that have been wielding their massive political clout.

At issue is whether – and how much – state taxpayers should continue to subsidize adoption of solar that is currently costing taxpayers $4.2 million a year.


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Solar industry officials in Washington see this as a moment of opportunity. The cost of solar is lower than ever. They hope business will take off if the state payments are extended. But representatives of out-of-state leasing companies criticize the House bill for failing to ensure that utilities will keep paying market rates for solar power generated by home-based systems.

Lobbyists for electric utilities also see opportunity. And they have considerable lobbying clout. Long leery of solar’s potential impact on their business model, some utilities are seeking changes. They want to levy a new charge on solar customers to offset the cost of maintaining power lines and related equipment used to move power to and from their homes.

Hurry up and wait: Kate Brown's transparency plan

Governor Kate Brown meeting the Oregon press corps in February. Photo: Flickr

By now you’ve heard the news: our newly minted Gov. Kate Brown is cracking down. She’s pro-transparency. And she’s asking the Legislature for an audit of state agencies’ compliance with public records law.

Redacted.

In her rollout of transparency reforms, Brown proposed this and two other bills. One tethers the spouses of the governor to state ethics rules. The other strengthens the powers of the Oregon Ethics Commission by dragging it out from under the governor’s thumb, among other things.

If you’ve followed state politics for the last month or more, then none of this is a surprise. Brown’s plans are a response to issues highlighted by John Kitzhaber’s resignation on the eve of the state’s 156th birthday, problems Brown promised to solve against a backdrop of banners and frosted sheet cake.

In announcing her solutions in a press release March 11, Brown’s own record on transparency in the governor’s office reads like those Krispy Kreme promos that turn PR numerics into news: Brown has closed 12 of the 34 public records requests received so far as governor, and 5 of the 108 still pending from the Kitzhaber administration.

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