Dozens of Seattle construction workers are seeing workplace-wide accountability for workplace-wide violations of their rights

 

We know that when there’s one labor rights violation in a workplace, there’s often more.

And that’s exactly what the Seattle Office of Labor Standards found in a recent investigation into two Seattle-area construction companies. After several immigrant construction workers brought concerns about their rights to CASA Latina — a trusted organization in the Latinx community, and one of our close partners — they got connected with City investigators, who in turn started looking into overall labor rights practices at the companies.

OLS found a long-standing pattern of labor rights violations at the two companies, including a widespread practice of ignoring minimum wage and overtime protections. And those violations aren’t limited to the handful of workers who spoke up: all told, OLS is forcing the companies to pay $2,055,204 to 53 workers.

Such robust and wide-ranging enforcement proves the power of our system of community-based labor standards enforcement in Seattle. The immigrant workers in this case already had strong existing relationships and trust with CASA Latina. When they came forward with concerns about their rights, CASA Latina remained involved throughout the entire investigation, helping bridge communication and build trust between workers and the City’s investigators. 

That trust is essential when it comes to ensuring workers can enforce their rights at work — and that’s especially true for immigrant workers of color, who face particularly high rates of labor rights violations, and who often don’t know or believe that government agencies like OLS are there to help.

This collaborative process means big things for workers: backed up by local organizations bringing community-based expertise, and supported by the resources and investigative power of city government, workers are increasingly seeing workplace-wide accountability for workplace-wide problems.

These partnerships between workers, community organizations, and city government are no accident. For years, community organizations like Fair Work Center and CASA Latina have been working with the City of Seattle to fund and build out this cutting-edge approach to labor standards enforcement.

It’s working. Seattle is leading the way by passing first-in-the-nation labor standards. And we’re backing those laws up with an equally innovative approach to enforcement that’s successfully moving money from companies to workers and holding employers accountable.

As the Seattle City Council turns its attention to the annual budget, it is critically important that city leaders continue to support and fund this community-based labor standards enforcement system. Our labor laws are only as strong as our ability to enforce them — and city leaders need only look to recent enforcement victories for workers as proof of just how powerful that enforcement can be.

Welcoming Danielle Alvarado as the new Executive Director of Fair Work Center & Working Washington

Dear Working Washington & Fair Work Center community,

We are thrilled to welcome Danielle Alvarado as the new Executive Director of Working Washington & Fair Work Center.

Danielle has more than a decade of experience working in the movement for racial and economic justice. And she knows our organization inside & out: since 2019, she’s been our Legal Director.

Leading our legal team, she has supported WA workers in recovering over $1.5 million in stolen wages, and has expanded our ability to represent workers in wage theft, harassment, and retaliation cases. She has also shown a deep commitment to putting the needs of immigrant workers and workers of color front and center in our organizing. This past year, she helped co-lead the broad coalition of community organizations that won $430 million in pandemic relief for undocumented workers excluded from government relief programs.

Born and raised in San Jose, California, Danielle became the first lawyer in her Mexican-American family in order to support organizing and build power in communities like the one she grew up in. She has spent her career supporting worker centers all over the country and has dedicated herself to learning about the many different ways workers are successfully building power.

That’s the experience driving Danielle’s vision for the future of Working Washington & Fair Work Center:

I believe that workers are experts in their own lives — that those of us who are closest to the problem should be the ones to identify and build solutions. That idea has long guided our organization’s work and victories, but there’s still so much more we can do to ensure the voices of those who’ve been excluded from conversations and decisions about their lives —  immigrant workers, workers of color, LGBTQ+ workers, disabled workers, and so many others — are put front and center.”

 

Since Fair Work Center & Working Washington merged in 2018, we’ve come together to win some transformative victories. We’ve passed groundbreaking protections for domestic workers in Seattle. We’ve won first-in-the-nation hazard pay and sick leave laws for gig workers. We’ve successfully expanded overtime protections to cover hundreds of thousands more salaried workers across the state. And we’ve launched new education programs in SeaTac & Yakima, and created a Basebuilding Team to better support worker leaders over the long haul.

Danielle steps into this role at a time of ongoing crisis for workers. But despite the challenges we’re facing, we know this from experience: when we organize together to demand big changes, we win big. Danielle comes prepared and fired up to continue the work of building power and winning transformative changes for working people across WA. 

But we’re up against billionaires and wealthy corporations — and that means victories will take resources. If you are able, show your support for Danielle and her leadership by contributing to a new Transition Fund that will ensure we have the resources we need to continue fighting for a just and equitable recovery from this pandemic crisis.  

Thank you for being a part of it all,

David Rolf
Board President
Working WA & Fair Work Center

Rebecca Saldaña
Board Vice President
State Senator — WA 37 

P.S. Want your full-time job to be building worker power with Danielle and the rest of the team at Working Washington & Fair Work Center? We are hiring for new legal clinic leadership and for two campaign organizing positions.

The Seattle Office of Labor Standards has moved $5 million from big gig companies to gig workers (so far)

Ever since gig workers in Seattle won first-in-the-nation hazard pay + sick leave laws last summer, workers have been enforcing their new rights & bringing cases to the Seattle Office of Labor Standards for investigation.

It’s working.

Over the past year, OLS has moved a total of more than $5 million from gig companies to 24K+ gig workers in Seattle for violations of the sick leave and hazard pay laws. And that’s on top of the millions of dollars workers are already getting when companies comply with the law by providing paid sick time and paying $2.50/job hazard pay.

In the latest settlement, Postmates is paying nearly a million dollars to workers after failing to provide required sick leave during the pandemic.

But it’s not just Postmates paying up. Over the past year, plenty of other gig companies have also reached settlements with OLS. Here’s the rundown:

It’s all proof that when we pair innovative labor standards policies — designed by workers, for workers — with robust government enforcement, we can raise standards across entire industries and ensure the rights workers win are real.

Seattle is setting a national model for gig workers’ rights — and that may soon include new *permanent* standards, with gig workers leading the way at the Seattle City Council. Stay tuned.

Domestic workers in Seattle won a Bill of Rights in 2018. What’s next?

In 2018, nannies and housecleaners with Working Washington & Casa Latina won the Seattle Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, ensuring domestic workers are covered by basic labor protections like minimum wage laws, paid rest breaks, meal breaks, and more. This victory overcame the racist exclusion of domestic workers — most of whom are women, people of color, and immigrants — from our most basic labor standards.

As part of that victory, we won the creation of an innovative, first-in-the-nation Domestic Workers Standards Board: a place for workers and employers to come together and make formal recommendations to the city about how we can continue improving conditions for workers.

Three years later, how’s it going? Over the past few months, nannies and housecleaners have come together on a list of recommendations to the city, focusing especially on the widespread lack of paid time off in the industry. Nearly two-thirds of nannies and house cleaners in the Seattle area can’t take paid time off when they’re sick to stay home and get healthy.

So domestic workers are leading an innovative solution — and last week, they brought their formal recommendations directly to the Seattle City Council. Under the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, those recommendations have some real force: once the Standards Board presents its formal recommendations to lawmakers, the City Council is required to offer a response within 120 days.

The Standards Board is proposing a new paid time off system that travels with workers as they travel from job to job. The way this “portable benefits” plan works, you can take sick days even if you don’t have a full time job and might not otherwise qualify for time off under current Seattle law.

There are still plenty of steps to go before portable benefits are a reality in Seattle. But we’re already building something big — it’s a movement that’s changing fundamental things about how decisions typically go down in the halls of power. Instead of politicians making decisions about us but without us, the standards board model puts workers’ voices front-and-center in the conversations that impact our lives.

Together, we’ll continue to make sure politicians here in WA are following our lead.

P.S.— Curious to learn more about how workers are leading the way with the innovative standards board model? Click here to read this article in Bloomberg from back when the board first launched in 2018.

Fair Work News — May 2021

a restaurant where workers’ rights weren’t on the menu

A Spanish-speaking immigrant restaurant worker in Seattle recently contacted our legal clinic looking for help enforcing his rights on the job. He was regularly required to work overtime hours, but his employer only paid him for 40 hours each week, no matter how many hours he actually worked.

He’d also taken Paid Sick & Safe Time after coming down with an illness — but instead of wishing him a speedy recovery, his employer fired him for staying home.

Represented by Fair Work Center lawyers, he filed a wage theft and retaliation lawsuit against his employer to enforce his right to get paid and take time off when sick.

a big corporation with a big sick leave problem

A warehouse worker at a large corporation reached out to us because they were concerned that their company’s sick time policy violated the state’s emergency COVID-19 rules.

Managers had told them that anyone who got sick needed to come into the workplace in-person to get approved for using sick time. When the worker mentioned how unsafe that policy was — especially during a pandemic —supervisors threatened to write them up.

We supported this worker in filing complaints with the WA Division of Occupational Safety & Health and with the Attorney General’s office to get the company to end this hazardous policy.

and a self-help success story

A Spanish-speaking immigrant worker at a restaurant in South King County got in touch with us after his employer shorted him $1,600 on a recent paycheck. He knew he was being cheated, but wanted to better understand his rights before confronting his employer about the missing money.

Our legal team helped him understand his rights and his options for recovering his missing pay. With that information, this worker negotiated with his employer on his own and recovered the entire amount he was owed.

Are your rights at work being violated?

If you’re interested in a training, one on one information session, or a free consultation with our lawyers, call 844-485-1195, email help@fairworkcenter.org, or fill out this form.

Questions about your rights at work? Join us for our Weekly Workers’ Workshop

Join us on Zoom and Facebook Live for our Weekly Workers’ Workshop, every Tuesday at 5pm (in English) and 5:30pm (en español). It’s a space to share your experiences, ask questions, and learn more about your rights and how to enforce them.

Our community educators — including Colleen and Ricardo — can’t wait to meet you and start tackling the issues you’re facing on the job: click below to check out their video invitations!

Help us build an even stronger worker movement in 2021

In this challenging year, your support has helped us respond to this crisis, win new workers’ rights, and continue building worker power.

>>>Will you renew your support in the new year & help us build an even stronger worker movement in 2021?

The economic and public health crisis has hit workers hard. More than a million people across WA lost work, and hundreds of thousands are still unemployed. Workers in essential industries have often faced additional risks without adequate safety equipment or access to paid sick leave. 2.2 million people in Washington are struggling to buy groceries & make ends meet. And the crisis is deepening racial inequities: people of color are far more likely to be classified as essential and unable to work from home, are more likely to have lost work, and are less likely to collect unemployment benefits after losing work.

In response, we shifted our priorities to address the urgent needs revealed by this crisis. We helped launch the push for a moratorium on evictions and utilities shut-offs to prevent thousands from losing access to running water or even losing their homes. We’ve held dozens of COVID health & safety trainings to help workers understand and enforce their rights. And we helped pass Seattle’s new Jumpstart tax, requiring the biggest companies paying the highest salaries to pay a small tax to fund relief programs like affordable housing and grocery vouchers.

Here are 11 victories we accomplished together this year:

  • We helped lead the coalition that won a $40 million fund for undocumented immigrant workers, who are excluded from federal relief programs and unemployment insurance, and we’ve worked to get that money out the door and into the hands of 38,000 people across the state. But we know one-time cash assistance isn’t enough: that’s why we’re now fighting to create an emergency program that provides undocumented workers who have lost work with weekly income support for a length of time similar to unemployment insurance.
  • Workers across industries organized to strengthen health & safety measures. Restaurant workers wrote an open letter calling on state leaders to prioritize worker safety, provide direct relief to workers, and fix our state’s unemployment system. Strippers led the new Adult Entertainment Advisory Committee, which submitted safety policy recommendations to the state legislature in November. And domestic workers are laying the groundwork to expand access to paid sick time.
  • We launched two new industry-specific Know Your Rights training programs in Yakima and at SEA Airport in SeaTac, which are developing dozens of worker leaders who are experts on their rights and trusted sources for this information in their workplaces.
  • Our legal clinic helped workers recover nearly $150,000 in stolen wages during the pandemic and conducted hundreds of legal consultations with workers. We did policy research to help develop a proposal for an income support system for undocumented workers. We launched a new partnership with the WAISN hotline to connect even more immigrant workers throughout the state with free legal advice. And our team filed two lawsuits against restaurants to make sure workers are paid the money they’re owed.
All these accomplishments take resources. Many of us are struggling to pay rent this month, but if you’re able to chip in a monthly contribution of just $5, $10, or $15, it’ll go a long way to winning even more victories and leading a just recovery in 2021.

Our movement is building momentum. We have a strong track record of winning, and big plans to make sure we keep that up in 2021. But we’re up against wealthy corporations who are spending tons of money to push their same agenda of more for them and less for the rest of us. We’ll keep fighting back—and we need your help to do that.

Click here to renew your support for Fair Work Center. Even $5 makes a big difference and helps us build strength for the long haul.

In solidarity & gratitude,

—All of us at Fair Work Center



A Potent Pairing: Wine & Wage Theft at Tandem Wine & Cheese Bar

Tandem Wine and Cheese Bar was promoted as a chic, relaxed, farm-to-table restaurant, with an eclectic decor and an outdoor patio in the heart of Woodinville’s wineries. It opened in Woodinville in 2010 and operated for a decade until closing abruptly in June 2019. Tandem had its devoted regulars: “It was almost like Cheers with some customers,” says one former employee. But for staff, working there was another story.

In a complaint filed in King County Superior Court, five former Tandem workers describe a widespread and long standing pattern of wage theft at the restaurant. They allege that they are still waiting to receive thousands of dollars in unpaid wages more than a year after Tandem closed. Now, represented by Fair Work Center, these workers have come together to recover their unpaid wages and raise awareness about wage theft in the restaurant industry. 

Paychecks came at unpredictable intervals, were frequently short hundreds of dollars, and often bounced when employees attempted to cash them. When plaintiffs confronted Tandem about money missing from their checks, they were met with excuses and delays.

“Rampant wage theft in the restaurant industry is a well-known problem. Stories like our clients’ are all too common, and the pressure to stay employed often forces many workers to put up with violations of their rights,” said Danielle Alvarado, Legal Director at Fair Work Center. “This case will make sure these workers are paid, and it will send a message to employers across Washington: you will be held accountable if you’re choosing not to comply with our state’s wage theft laws.”

Missing tips and bounced paychecks

“It was exhausting to chase down paychecks because I was in school 7 days a week at the time — and then committing my time at Tandem on top of that to pay bills and help pay for school. It was money that I was really relying on. I was exhausted because I had to put in all this extra time and effort just to get paid.” —Savannah, plaintiff

The plaintiffs in this case knew they were not getting all their tips. Often, tips were totally missing from their paychecks. And even when tips were supposedly included, Tandem didn’t issue pay stubs. Without pay stubs, earnings and tips can be easily obscured, which is why Washington State requires employers to provide them to workers. 

Employees were forced to do their best to keep their own records to ensure they got paid all their wages. On top of that, employees were never sure when they could expect their next paycheck. State law requires employers to pay their employees at regular, predictable intervals, but that almost never happened at Tandem.

Savannah started working at Tandem as a server in 2018. Weeks went by, but she was never paid for her work. She asked for her paycheck and explained that without pay, she was struggling to pay her mounting bills. Instead of an explanation or a check, management stalled, offering only excuses. Left with little choice, Savannah was forced to take out a loan to pay her rent and college tuition bill. 

“It was so stressful when Tandem didn’t pay me. I had to take out this last-minute student loan, and it was a private loan with higher interest rates. I was desperate at the time — I hadn’t planned for that at all.”   —Savannah, plaintiff

When Tandem did distribute paychecks, workers report that checks often bounced at the bank. The checks were already weeks late, and the amounts were short hundreds of dollars. And now, when employees went to the bank to actually get their long-awaited money? The bank would tell them the check didn’t clear. They still weren’t getting paid. 

Tackling wage theft

Wage theft is all too common, especially in the restaurant industry, and studies show that it’s likely on the rise during this pandemic. It’s more urgent now than ever that workers have access to effective tools to get promptly back the money they’re owed.

Workers need more tools to hold their employers accountable when they’re not getting paid what they’re owed. That’s why Fair Work Center & Working Washington are working to pass the Washington Wage Recovery Act. 

The bill allows workers to put a temporary hold on known employer assets as soon as wage theft happens — the best possible time to secure those assets. Because rent, food, and car payments don’t take a holiday, workers can’t afford to wait years to recover their wages. The temporary hold on assets — also called a “lien” — has been used very effectively by unpaid or underpaid farmworkers and construction workers in Washington for years. It’s time that other workers be included in this effective solution to get paid. 

The Washington Wage Recovery Act would help workers experiencing wage theft get paid before their bills come due, so that they’re not forced to take their employer to court more than a year after their wages were stolen. 

Celebrando el primer grupo de Promotores de Salud & Seguridad en Yakima

Al principio de noviembre, 14 trabajadores fueron certificados como Promotores de Salud y Seguridad en Yakima, participantes en un programa de entrenamiento sobre los derechos laborales y la salud y seguridad en el trabajo. Estes trabajadores están creciendo su liderazgo y ayudando asegurar que todos los miembros de sus comunidades tengan el conocimiento que necesitan para enfrentar el maltrato en el trabajo.

El programa está diseñado para crear una red de trabajadores y líderes que entienden sus propios derechos, y quienes se convertirán en fuentes comunitarias para información sobre los derechos laborales.

“En mi experiencia trabajando aquí en el estado de Washington, he sido víctima de injusticias y al mismo tiempo al pasar del tiempo he oído comentarios de muchas personas las cuales pasan situaciones parecidas. Ahora me doy cuenta que muchas de esas injusticias fueron o han faltado a los derechos que tenemos como trabajadores. Esta es la mayor razón por la que decidí obtener conocimiento sobre mis derechos y compartir esto con las otras personas.

Conocer los derechos nos da un motivo de seguridad como trabajadores, porque sabes que ningún empleador te puede humillar o hacer sentir menos. Saber tus derechos y saber poner estos en práctica nos ayudará a ganar valores, respeto, y seguridad. Para mí, conocer tus derechos es como quitarte una venda de los ojos.”

Graciela

“Mi motivación de participar en el programa surgió de un deseo de asegurar que tenemos condiciones de trabajo seguras para reducir el riesgo de contagio por COVID-19…

Es tan importante conocer y exigir nuestros derechos — nos enfrentamos a una realidad en donde los derechos de los trabajadores no sólo son respetados, sino que ni siquiera son reconocidos como tales por parte de las grandes compañías. Tenemos que impulsar y movilizar a los trabajadores para que respete, proteja y garantice los derechos laborales.”

Estefani

A través del programa, que duró un mes, les participantes asistieron a dieciséis horas de talleres—siempre con el distanciamiento social y llevando tapabocas—para recibir la certificación. Aprendieron sobre el derecho de tener un lugar de trabajo saludable y seguro, sobre los leyes que protegen sus derechos laborales, y sobre las agencias con que une se puede poner una queja si su empleador viole los derechos.

Al terminar el programa, cada Promotor dará talleres de salud y seguridad con por lo menos cuatro otros trabajadores en su comunidad. Este modelo creará una amplia red de trabajadores quienes servirán como expertos y fuentes de información sobre los derechos laborales.

He aprendido mucho y he perdido el miedo de preguntar sobre mis derechos. Yo les digo a todos los trabajadores de Yakima y del estado que busquen aprender sobre sus derechos para que no tengan miedo de enfrentar cualquier problema que se nos atraviese y que sepan que siempre va a haber alguien que nos apoye porque no estamos solos y tenemos derechos. Yo me siento feliz y con más confianza en mí para no dejar que abusen y quiebren mis derechos como persona trabajadora.

—Mireya

Celebrating 14 New Health & Safety Promotores in Yakima

Haga clic aquí para leer esta noticia en español.  

Earlier this month, 14 workers in Yakima became the first group to complete Fair Work Center’s new Health and Safety Promotores training program. These workers are growing their leadership and helping to ensure everyone in their community has the knowledge they need to stand up to mistreatment at work.

The program is designed to create a network of worker-leaders who understand their rights, and who become trusted resources, sharing vital know-your-rights information in their own communities and workplaces.

“In my time working here in Washington state, I’ve been the victim of injustices, and I’ve heard from so many other workers who’ve also been treated poorly. I now realize that many of these injustices were violations of the rights we have as workers. That’s the main reason that I decided to learn more about my rights and share my knowledge with other workers.

Knowing your rights gives you a level of protection as a worker, because you know that no employer can humiliate you or make you feel small and powerless. Knowing your rights and knowing how to put them into practice helps all of us win respect and safety. For me, knowing my rights is like removing a blindfold from my eyes.”

—GRACIELA

“I was motivated to participate in this program because I believe workers need safe working conditions to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. It’s so important to understand and stand up for our rights at work. We’re facing a reality where our employers don’t respect our rights — some of the big companies don’t even recognize that we have rights at all. We have to motivate and mobilize our fellow workers so that our employers respect us, protect us, and guarantee our labor rights.”

—ESTEFANI

Over the course of the month-long program, participants attended a total of sixteen hours of training—physically distanced and masked—in order to get their certification. Workers learned about their basic rights related to health and safety at work, about the state laws that protect their rights, and the agencies where they can file complaints if they believe those rights are being violated. 

Upon completing the program, each Promotor will give health and safety trainings to at least four other workers in their circles and communities. This model will create a wide network of worker-experts who serve as trusted sources of information about workers’ rights.

“I’ve learned a lot and I’m no longer afraid to ask questions about my rights when I’m at work. I’d say this to other workers in Yakima and across the state: learn about your rights so that you’re not afraid to confront whatever problem comes up where you work. And I’d also say that there will always be people who support us, because we’re not alone in this struggle. I feel happy and more confident in myself knowing that I’ll be able to make sure nobody violates my rights or tries to silence my voice.”

—MIREYA

Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund applications are now open

Undocumented workers can now apply for financial relief from the Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund

We’re over seven months into the COVID crisis, and undocumented workers in our state still haven’t seen any form of government relief — but that’s about to change. Today, undocumented workers can begin applying for the Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund, which will provide long-overdue direct financial relief to undocumented immigrants who have been barred by federal rules from receiving stimulus checks and unemployment insurance.

ESPAÑOL: Haga clic aquí para leer esta noticia en español.

This new relief fund comes as the result of months of relentless organizing by a broad coalition of undocumented immigrants and more than 400 community organizations across our state. After sustained pressure from the coalition demanding emergency relief, Governor Inslee agreed to an initial commitment of $40 million in funding to provide direct cash assistance to undocumented immigrants, who have been excluded from federal relief programs and unemployment insurance.

Undocumented workers in Washington can now apply to receive a one-time direct payment of $1,000 (with a maximum of $3000 per household). Applications will close on December 6, 2020.

The Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund is managed by the same coalition of community organizations who called for its creation, not by the government. The only people with access to an applicant’s personal information are Scholarship Junkies (the community organization that manages the fund), Fair Work Center, and Seattle Credit Union (the organizations that distribute the money). This information will never be voluntarily shared with the police, the government, or ICE. Assistance from this fund is considered one-time disaster relief and should not be considered under the public charge rule — receiving money from this fund should not impact a person’s ability to get a green card. Eligible workers can complete the application online, over the phone, or by mail, and the application is available in multiple languages.

>>CLICK HERE to learn more about the Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund and to apply.

This relief fund is an important step forward in addressing the glaring exclusion of undocumented workers from COVID relief efforts. Washington now joins California and Oregon as the only three states to provide financial support to undocumented workers during this crisis. 

But while the $40 million fund will put much-needed relief money into the hands of tens of thousands of immigrant workers across our state, it doesn’t come close to meeting the actual level of need in the community. More than 250,000 undocumented immigrants call our state home — and, from the start, the coalition has been calling for a commitment from the state of at least $100 million.

And we know that one-time cash assistance simply isn’t enough. All workers — regardless of immigration status, regardless of what kind of work they do, and regardless of where they live — need access to strong safety nets that guarantee economic security, especially during times of crisis. 

To make that a reality, the coalition is calling on the Governor and the state legislature to take action and create a permanent income support system for undocumented workers and others excluded from unemployment benefits, including many gig workers, domestic workers, and farmworkers.

The creation of the Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund has shown that it’s possible to set up a statewide system that provides government emergency relief to undocumented workers. Now, we need our elected leaders to commit to designing and funding a permanent system. Immigrant workers are invited to share their thoughts about what that system should look like in this community survey, available in both English and Spanish.

Together, we’ll make sure that all workers in our state get the support and relief they need — during this crisis and beyond.