"No wage is a fair wage if workers aren't getting it," said Anastasia Christman of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), adding that when people lose part of the pay they're rightfully owed, especially low-wage workers, it affects everyone—if you get your full pay, you pay taxes on it and pay sales tax when you spend it, and you can better care for yourself without assistance.
Plus, y'know—it's just fucking wrong to steal from people, right? And yet employers do: This 2009 study from the NELP of more than 4,300 low-wage workers in big cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York) found that 26 percent of workers in their sample were paid less than minimum wage just in the previous week. They also found tip theft, lack of overtime pay, lack of meal breaks, and other forms of wage theft.
In Seattle, the city has had to admit that even though we've strengthened wage-theft laws and mandated paid sick leave, we don't actually enforce those laws. (Or more specifically: Since the city hasn't prosecuted anyone under those newer rules, we're either not adequately enforcing them, or we have 100 percent compliance from every business in the city.) This discussion has been going on for a while, since before a potential minimum-wage raise was a serious policy discussion—but the potential wage hike renews the need for revamped enforcement.
Enter Nick Licata's proposal for an Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.
"You can not have an enforcement system based just on complaints," said Licata. There needs to be proactive enforcement, and a well-funded office with inspectors and auditors as well as outreach and education efforts. If an employee doesn't know the law, they don't know when they're getting screwed. If they won't be protected when they complain, they could lose their job and go from partially stolen wages to no wages at all—a power dynamic that sets people up to not complain. Employees' complaints about violations, says Licata, should trigger an audit of the business, not an investigation into a single employee that identifies them and singles them out for retaliation. (That's a hot tip from San Francisco's labor office.)
Working Washington says the office should contract with a community-based nonprofit to do much of the work, again similar to what's happened in San Francisco. It would focus on prevention of violations through education of workers and monitoring of employers, and could serve as a sort of "one-stop shop" for people who aren't sure to which governmental body they should take a particular claim. Licata says the office would ideally be funded at around $1 million, but that it likely will start with much less, maybe a third or half of that.