Seattle’s mayor urges workers to report wage theft

SEATTLE — Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and other officials warned Thursday that the city will investigate and prosecute when businesses fail to pay employees what they’re due, after five fast-food workers filed police complaints saying they’d been cheated out of pay.

“Wage theft is a crime,” McGinn told a news conference and rally on the steps of City Hall. “An honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay.”

Seattle passed a law two years ago specifying that wage theft falls under the city’s regular theft statute and can be prosecuted as such, but no one ever has been charged with it. The law also allows the city to deny or revoke business licenses for those convicted of wage theft in the past 10 years.

The issue is one of several related to fast-food workers, including pay and union organizing rights, that has been garnering attention nationally this year following a strike by fast-food workers in several cities, including Seattle.

The workers who complained to the police department Thursday included Caroline Durocher, 21, who says she’s owed about $800 from her six-month stint working at a Taco Bell in the Ballard neighborhood this year. She said her boss routinely made her stay about half an hour late to wash floors and clean bathrooms, but she never got paid for the time.

The franchise referred an inquiry about the allegation to its director of operations, who referred it to the company’s corporate headquarters, which did not immediately have a comment.

“We had to stay until we finished our work — sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes hours,” Durocher said. “I remember one time in particular we had to stay until 5 a.m. because corporate was coming that day and everything had to be spotless.”

Craig Sims, the city’s chief criminal prosecutor, called it an issue of human dignity.

“This ordinance was meant to protect a class of people who are vulnerable,” he said. “The Seattle City Attorney’s Office is absolutely supportive of prosecuting wage theft cases.”

Police had previously received several wage-theft complaints, but the allegations weren’t “factually sufficient” to warrant charges, he said. He added that he hoped the news conference would mark the start of a zero-tolerance policy for wage theft in the city.

The mayor urged workers to contact police if they believe they have been a victim of wage theft.

Sage Wilson, an activist with the Good Jobs Seattle campaign, noted in an email that wage theft can occur when an employer fails to pay time-and-half for more than 40 hours worked in a week; requires employees to work without pay before or after their shifts, or during breaks; or takes illegal deductions from paychecks, such as for uniforms or register shortages.

Theft of up to $750 is a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. More than $750 is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, and more than $5,000 is a felony punishable by up to 10 years.

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