Report says state workers giving up $13 million a year in free labor

SEATTLE — Some things to think about this Labor Day: Workers in Washington state give their employers more than $13 million a year in free work, according to a newspaper report.

And a new study from the University of Washington shows that more people in the state are working extra jobs and longer hours just to keep up with the cost of living.

It’s a problem in blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs, an analysis by The Seattle Times shows. Overtime goes uncounted, off-the-clock work doesn’t get recorded, and illegal deductions take away dollars from paychecks everywhere. And most of that never gets collected.

Government agents persuaded employers to pay more than $5.8 million last year — but that was less than half of what officials determined was owed. Many violations were not even reported.

One in four men and one in 10 women now work at least 50 hours a week. Many employees, including white-collar workers, don’t know or insist on their rights, the Times said.

The UW study released Sunday says families with annual incomes between $15,000 and $30,000 work 8 percent more weekly hours than 10 years ago. Still, the buying power of those families dropped 9.4 percent, the study showed. The study was conducted through the Northwest Policy Center, part of UW’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs.

"Lower-income families are falling behind despite working longer hours," said UW policy analyst Christopher Haugen.

More than one in 11 people in the lower-income bracket working full-time supplement their income with a second or third job, the UW study said.

Dan Drinkwitz, the Times reported, used to work up to 45 hours a week without receiving overtime pay. And if he didn’t work the required amount, he had to make up the time in order to keep his vacation time intact.

Drinkwitz, an engineer in Mukilteo, finally sued Alliant Techsystems. The state Supreme Court ruled that Alliant treated employees on salary as if they were paid by the hour.

Because the company penalized workers when they didn’t complete the required hours, by law they made employees hourly — and that made them eligible for overtime. The two sides are still in talks about a settlement.

Hopkins, Minn.-based Alliant could have to pay thousands of dollars in back wages to hundreds of people in Washington who worked for the company from 1993 until it sold the unit in 1995.

Washington courts last year awarded $115.7 million in unpaid benefits to thousands of workers, including almost $97 million to 10,000 "permatemps" at Microsoft who filed a class-action lawsuit.

This year, workers have won more than $135 million in settlements from Rite-Aid, U-Haul, Farmers Insurance and Taco Bell. The businesses said employees were exempt from overtime.

Labor rules aren’t always clear.

Employers who let salaried workers take a day off and repay it later, for example, now risk having those staff classified as hourly.

"There’s a lot of misunderstanding among employers," Seattle labor lawyer Martin Garfinkel said. "They think that if they put people on salary, they’re exempt from overtime. But it’s not true."

Two managers for Starbucks have filed separate lawsuits accusing the coffee giant of calling them managers but asking them to work extra hours without overtime pay though they rarely were actually supervising others.

Computer workers are not entitled to overtime if they earn more than $27.63 an hour, under a state rule enacted in 1998. Workers say that leads to abuse, even if unintentional.

Temporary and contract workers, meanwhile, are fighting similar battles. They want benefits such as vacation and health insurance.

State Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, sponsored a bill this year that sought to increase penalties for employers who violate wage laws — but it didn’t pass.

Many workers, whether white-collar or blue-collar, know little about labor laws. Many cases don’t get attention unless a group decides together to sue.

Lupe Gamboa, the regional director of the United Farm Workers of America office in Eastern Washington, said a large number of Washington’s 180,000 agricultural workers are paid by the bushel or bundle, which ends up below the state’s $6.72 minimum wage.

Jim Ashcraft receives a bundle of new wage complaints daily at the state Department of Labor and Industries. He oversees five agents in King County who are among 20 statewide who are responsible for handling wage-related claims.

Ashcraft’s crew handles about 40 new cases each month — a tenth of the 5,000 filed in the state each year. Another 16 federal agents handled federal-law violations for 1,299 employees last year.

"We can talk nicely. We can send a case to the attorney general," Ashcraft said. But we can’t put a gun to their head and make them pay."

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