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Document: Why Complain? Complaints, Compliance and the Problem of Enforcement in the U.S. Workplace, Weil & Pyles, 2005

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Document: Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers, NELP, 2009

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Document: Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles, UCLA, 2010

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Fear Stifles Complaints of Wage Abuse

A protest in Seattle. Photo by Alex Garland/Demotix.

Karim Ameri allegedly decided to play hardball after learning that his Los Angeles recycling business was under investigation for allegedly failing to pay the minimum wage or overtime to workers putting in 60-hour weeks.

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InvestigateWest is proud to feature this piece by FairWarning, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.

Court records say Ameri pressured employees of Recycling Innovations, a string of bottle-and-can redemption centers, to lie to federal officials about his company’s pay practices. He allegedly threatened to fire workers or report them to immigration authorities if they cooperated with U.S. Labor Department investigators.

In one court document, Ameri is said to have “threatened to break an employee’s arm” — although an accountant for the business said Ameri got tripped up by language barriers and didn’t mean it as a real threat of violence.

Federal officials in December took the unusual step of getting a restraining order to bar threats or interference with their investigation. Without admitting wrongdoing, the company in May agreed in a settlement to pay more than $74,000 in back wages and damages to 13 underpaid workers. Ameri declined to comment.

The case reflects a fact of life about wage abuses. Violations often are concealed, and regulators hindered, because workers fear what will happen if they speak up.

Pay Violations Rampant in Low-Wage Industries Despite Enforcement Efforts

A warehouse workers protest in Illinois. Photo: Peoplesworld/Flickr

For workers stuck on the bottom rung, living on poverty wages is hard enough. But many also are victims of wage theft, a catch-all term for payroll abuses that cheat workers of income they are supposedly guaranteed by law.

Editor's Note
InvestigateWest is proud to feature this piece by FairWarning, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.

Over the last few years employers ranging from baseball’s San Francisco Giants to Subway franchises to Farmer’s Insurance have been cited for wage violations. More often, though, wage abuses are not reported by victims or punished by authorities despite being routine in some low-wage industries.

“If you steal from your employer, you’re going to be hauled out of the workplace in handcuffs,” said Kim Bobo, a Chicago workers rights advocate and author. “But if your employer steals from you, you’ll be lucky to get your money back.

Victims typically are low wage, low-skilled workers desperate to hang on to their jobs. Frequently, they are immigrants—the most vulnerable and least apt to speak up. “They know that if they complain, there’s always someone else out there who is willing to take their job,” said Maria Echaveste, a former labor official during the Clinton administration who is now at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

While heart-breaking for employees, wage theft also robs federal and state treasuries of many billions of dollars in taxes, and puts employers who play by the rules at a serious competitive disadvantage.

Member Exclusive: Fishing for answers in Duwamish River records

We just published our latest SIDEBAR — an exclusive monthly dispatch from inside our newsroom just for InvestigateWest members.

For August we have a piece by Executive Director Robert McClure about getting, and not getting, government records into the public eye:

State and federal freedom-of-information laws give investigative journalists a look behind the curtain at the internal workings of government. An essential tool, they allow us to help the public better understand what government is doing and saying on its behalf.

The people can better govern their governors, in other words.

So we were recently taken aback by how many documents the City of Seattle and King County withheld in one of our latest rounds of Freedom Of Information requests. The sheer volume of records withheld suggests an epic legal battle brewing over the Duwamish River cleanup.

To read the rest...

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Member Exclusive: Seattle's historic minimum wage

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Every month we send InvestigateWest members an exclusive dispatch from inside our newsroom.

We call it SIDEBAR. Tucked inside is an essay from one of our reporters, a follow-up report on something we published, previews of investigations-in-progress, or other original content. If that sounds like the kind of thing you like, we invite you to join InvestigateWest and support independent, consequential journalism in the Pacific Northwest.

This month, reporter Allegra Abramo introduces a project she’s been working on this summer:

Worker advocates applauded last month when the Seattle City Council voted to phase in a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. But some worry the law won’t be vigorously enforced. They’ve seen too many workers struggle for justice after being cheated out of their wages.

It’s a topic Diego Rondón Ichikawa knows well. He is a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project and founder of the Wage Justice Project.

“What Seattle did was historic,” he told me in an interview last month, “but it’s also important to make sure these workers are getting what they deserve under the law..."

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State delayed years on toxic fish; Inslee to outline his plan today

A 'Healthy Choice' program brochure advising consumers about safe fish consumption.
Credit: Washington Department of Health

Ten minutes and four slides. That’s what a Washington Department of Health staffer responsible for warning the public about contaminants in fish was allotted to impress then-Health Secretary Mary Selecky about the importance of the issue.

Lots of luck, warned former Department of Health toxicology chief Rob Duff — Selecky and her crew are “skeptics” who “are not very interested” in environmental health.

And yet, wrote Duff: “If not DOH, who?”

That was early 2008. In the months that followed, Health Department staffers would continue to raise contaminated fish as a public health issue, records and interviews show.  Among their concerns: a long-known error in the state formula that controls how much toxic pollution can be dumped into waterways by factories, sewage-treatment plants and other polluters.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since repeatedly warned the state to fix the error.

Now, a year and a half into the Inslee administration, the governor is scheduled to announce his plan today in Olympia.