Panel discusses issues of wage theft

Wage Theft Panel

Wage Theft Panel -

Professor George Lovell (far right), Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies endowed chair, moderates the wage theft panel held in Parrington Commons on Thursday night. 


Photo by Nap Poshyananda

Students from the Evans School of Public Affairs and the UW School of Law welcomed a discussion on wage theft and labor issues in the Parrington Commons on Thursday evening with a panel of five different members of the labor community.

The event was sponsored by the Evans School’s Labor Discussion Group, the UW Law School’s Students for Labor and Employment Justice (SLEJ), the Evans School Student Organization, and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.

According to Chris Blado, a graduate student of the Evans School of Public Affairs and organizer of the event, the concept was not immediately accepted by the School of Public Affairs because it “promoted political advocacy.”

“It took a little bit of convincing the Evans School to approve the event,” he said.

The panel included Cariño Barragan of Casa Latina, Liz Ford from the Seattle University School of Law, Donna Hart with the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, community organizer Michael Reagan, and Andrea Schmitt of Columbia Legal Services. The discussion was moderated by professor George Lovell, the endowed chair of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and professor of political science.

Lovell began the interdepartmental discussion by describing wage theft as an “umbrella term” for several facets of labor issues. At it’s most basic definition, wage theft is when a worker does not receive fair pay for the work done.

“This is a much more widespread problem than people have realized,” Lovell said. “People are not being paid in the way that is required by federal law.”

Schmitt, an attorney who serves as a part of a team that provides services to undocumented workers, gave examples of the wage theft farm workers face.

“They are paid by the piece [of fruit or produce picked] rather than a minimum wage, which is not lawful,” Schmitt said.

Ford noted the divergence between the average median income and productivity, indicating an unequal distribution of the wealth being generated.

“Wage theft is a very symbolic exercise of power because it is law-breaking,” Lovell explained. “[Employers] are given privileges that they don’t have to follow the same rules as everybody else, and somehow this gets internalized in society, and the employers believe they are above the law. That’s a very pernicious and destructive thing to society.”

Barragan discussed a piece of legislation, a 2011 ordinance that criminalized wage theft in Seattle, on which her organization had a lot of input. However, the ordinance is hard to enforce.

“There is a lack of jobs and a lack of educational opportunities to provide more jobs. There is also, of course, a language issue,” Barragan explained. “It’s a lot of issues.”

Hart elaborated on a few investigations of labor companies that she helped conduct, saying that some of the workers that are being denied wages have “the hardest jobs in the world.”

“Oftentimes it is difficult to get workers to speak about these problems. They are often intimidated and afraid. Some are undocumented or some are blacklisted for being known to have cooperated with investigations,” Hart said.

Barragan said that most workers that file complaints do so after they’ve left the employer in question because they fear retaliation.

“Retaliation can be deportation just for standing up for your rights,” Barragan said.

The panel members all had stories of injustices by labor companies that often are repeat offenders.

Reagan, an organizer with the Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol), which works to stand up for and empower anyone who has been exploited, discussed specific cases of labor exploitation. One of the stories was of a taco truck worker in Fremont who wasn’t being paid for the final hours of his shift. When he approached his employer to be paid for the full amount of work, he was denied, fired, and accused of stealing instead.

“To say that the system is broken is an understatement,” Reagan said.

Lovell explained that the issue is already illegal, but the law has not been enough to deter the acts of wage theft.

“Wage theft happens because employers think they can get away with it,” Lovell said. “Wage theft is indicative of many more underlying issues with our society.”

Reach reporter Christina Cho at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @CCchews

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