Kshama Sawant supporters held campaign signs echoing fast food workers' call for a $15 minimum wage.
When you think about your interactions with fast food employees, you're usually telling them what you want. Today, the tables were turned at City Hall when local fast food workers sat down across from Seattle City Council members and told the council what fast food workers want: Better wages and benefits—and even more importantly, for the city to start actually enforcing a two-year-old law that criminalizes wage theft.
At the table in council chamber, five employees from Qdoba, Wendy's, Burger King, and Taco Bell leaned into microphones and alleged dramatic violations of their rights as employees—wage theft, on-the-job injuries, denial of breaks. Larita McFall, a Qdoba employee, claimed that when 350 degree fry oil splashed her face a few months ago, a manager assured her she'd be okay and should get back to work. Juanita Porter alleged that her employer, Taco Bell, paid her for 43 hours of work in a pay period even though her time slip said she'd worked 71 hours. "They tried to tell me I didn’t work 71 hours because the computer kept me clocked in when I wasn’t there. I clock in manually, so I don’t see how that’s possible," she told the council.
Caroline Durocher testifies to city council.
Council Member Nick Licata asked the group if their employers had alerted them that a paid sick time ordinance was in effect; about half said no. Caroline Durocher, who reported being forced to work off the clock on her closing shifts at the Ballard Taco Bell to the tune of $1,000 in lost wages, urged the council: "You guys need to get more involved, come in and check that stuff out."
She's right to call on the city for help; wage violations like these shouldn't be happening at all. As council members pointed out, the city has laws specifically criminalizing wage theft (it's a gross misdemeanor) and mandating sick leave. Said Council Member Burgess, "This is one of those issues where there's not much disagreement: Wage theft is wrong. The industry supported our ordinance"—an ordinance strengthening wage-theft protections that the council passed unanimously in 2011. But he also pointed out that since that ordinance passed, there's been zero prosecutions.
So is the problem with enforcement?
No one seems to know exactly; the council called this discussion in light of the recent fast food worker strike, where in May local fast food employees walked off the job to demand higher pay—a $15 minimum wage—and the right to strike without retaliation. But these reports from workers ended up going way beyond legal-but-inadequate pay.
Reached for comment, Council Member Mike O'Brien said he was "personally taken aback by how pervasive the practice [of wage theft] seems to be... We need to take a good hard look at our current wage theft law and ask if we need to strengthen the ordinance or simply find a better way to enforce it."
And Burgess goes further: “When we passed the wage theft ordinance a couple years ago, there was no opposition. Everyone agreed it was a good idea. Since then I have not yet seen this become a priority for law enforcement, but it should be. And if better enforcement would require more resources, the Council should consider that in our budget process."
To report wage theft, you call the police—just like you would if someone stole your car, or your watch. But lots of people don't know that, and even once it's reported, it can be decidedly hard to prove. I couldn't verify these workers claims this afternoon, but they did walk into City Hall and tell politicians and TV cameras that they were crime victims. Apparently SPD was aware of today's discussion and may be following up with workers.
To be clear, the difficulties these workers reported aren't all illegal; some are just shitty treatment. Burger King employee Aaron Larson said he'd had to move in with his grandmother just to get by on his piss-poor wages. Durocher reported that she can't live on the money she gets from the part-time hours she's given, but that her unreliable schedule makes it impossible to get a second job, since she sometimes doesn't get her schedule until 24 hours before she has to report to work. When Durocher worked closing at Taco Bell, no buses ran that late, and she can't afford a car. She says after she got off at three in the morning, she'd walk the eight miles up Aurora from Ballard to where she lived in Shoreline.
One solution to workers' problems that was floated at the meeting would be to mimic San Francisco, which has a city Office of Labor Standards Enforcement to both respond to complaints and proactively investigate. Licata said, "Everything we have is on a complaint basis, [which] puts the burden on the individual" to report their employers' crimes. "That means they have to be educated, and they have to take the risk," he said. A more proactive arm of the city looking into wage violations would be a fantastic step forward. Kshama Sawant was also there to testify during public comment on a higher minimum wage; she said her campaign for city council is "the only campaign calling for a $15 minimum wage" and pointed out that her opponent, incumbent Richard Conlin, "famously—or infamously—voted against the sick leave ordinance." Keep fighting the good fight, Sawant.