Below are some recent examples of cases in the Fair Work Legal Clinic:
Pay day for Jorge
Jorge was something of a jack of all trades at the popular restaurant in Shoreline where he’s worked for years. He worked a number of roles in the kitchen and helped out as a server in the dining room when needed. Jorge was not paid properly. His employer would pay him irregularly and only when asked. And he was never paid all that he was owed – it was always just enough to survive, enough to pay rent or buy groceries when needed. To make matters worse, the temporary owner kept incomplete and inaccurate records of his hours, so Jorge wasn’t getting any paystubs to document his hours or the full degree of wage theft he was experiencing.
Working with the Fair Work Legal Clinic, Jorge recreated over a year’s worth of his work calendar and calculated that he was owed more than $22,000. We worked with him to develop a demand letter that we sent to his employer. After Jorge received no response, we helped him file a wage theft claim with the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I). Throughout the investigation, we supported Jorge in navigating the process with L&I and responding to their inquiries and requests for additional information. L&I recently sided with Jorge and sent their own letter to the temporary employer demanding he pay Jorge the $22,000 he’s owed.
Shady scheduling and discrimination on display at the mall
Belle, who works at a jewelry store at a mall in Seattle, first contacted Fair Work Center after experiencing frequent disruptions in her work schedule. In addition, she felt that her employer’s treatment towards her was drastically different than their treatment towards other employees. For example, while other employees were allowed to take breaks freely, Belle was required to get permission in advance. Belle never received any disciplinary actions from her employer and did not understand why she was subjected to this different treatment.
During Belle’s consultation, we discovered that Belle is the only elderly worker in that store; all other employees are in their 20s and 30s, including Belle’s supervisor.
As a salesperson part of her pay is through commission, but the nature of sales in the store are such that people often come in once, scope out what they want and come back later to make the purchase. Because Belle’s schedule was so unpredictable, she would not be able to let customers know when she might be in the store next. This meant that often another salesperson would get commission on the sale that she did the bulk of the work on.
We provided Belle information about our state laws regarding breaks and commission. We advised her that Seattle’s Secure Scheduling Ordinance requires large retail and food service employers with more than 500 employees globally to, among other things, post schedules two weeks in advance, or provide additional compensation to workers for last-minute changes to the schedule. If her employer meets its criteria, it would be in violation. In addition, we advised her to begin documenting her treatment at work in order for us to better assess her whether employer had violated age discrimination rules.
If we determine her employer is covered by Secure Scheduling, we will be able to take action that will not only fix Belle’s scheduling concerns but her coworkers’ too. We are also continuing to work with Belle to address concerns around age discrimination in a way that enables her to keep her job and, just as importantly, close more sales and receive more commissions.
When a hiring bonus isn’t a bonus for getting hired
Dudley worked as service technician for a small general contractor company. He mainly went to other small businesses to make repairs or perform other building services. The primary reason he took this job over others he was considering was because the company was offering a $1,500 hiring bonus for qualified candidates. In his interview, he asked about the hiring bonus and says he was told he would get it upon starting to work.
Unfortunately, he ended up being terminated two months into the job but never received his hiring bonus. He came to Fair Work Center looking for help getting bonus he was promised in his interview. We’re supporting Dudley in preparing to file a claim in small claims court where a judge will decide if an employer can be held accountable to a verbal agreement made in an interview.
Because the law around how hiring bonuses work is a little murky, there are likely many other workers in the situation of feeling like they are owed an advertised hiring bonus only to never receive it upon taking the job. We know it is common for employers to promise one thing to their workers and do another, so we will be fighting hard to help Dudley get his bonus.
Three strikes don’t make this dismissal right
Juanita worked at a nonprofit organization in Seattle from 2008 until very recently. Until early last year, she never had any sort of disciplinary or performance issues with management and was considered an integral part of the team. In fact, Juanita was someone a lot of people in the office came to for questions or support when they needed help.
Last year, her longtime supervisor was terminated and replaced by a new, younger supervisor. Juanita is older than most of her coworkers, and she noticed that her employer was moving towards hiring younger workers. She started to feel like she was being pushed out by her new supervisor, both in how she was being treated day to day and also in the trivial things she was being disciplined for by her supervisor. The first time she was written up it was because she spent six minutes in the copy room when her supervisor said it should only take two minutes. The second time she received a notice saying she was taking excessive bathroom breaks. She became suspicious of her supervisor’s actions and even noticed a few of her newer coworkers following her around the office and timing her breaks. Juanita believes her supervisor directed those coworkers to pay close attention to her activities. It was at that point she first came to Fair Work Center for legal consultation.
The final straw that led to her termination came one day when the office was closing and a client showed up in a state of emergency seeking services. Because she was committed to providing services to people in need, she stayed an extra hour to counsel the client. Company policy is that workers must get advance approval for overtime hours, so, after two trivial strikes already against her, she was written up again for her third strike for taking an unapproved overtime hour and terminated. She feels it was retaliation by her supervisor, who was just waiting to find a reason to let her go.
Juanita first tried going through the internal HR complaint processes twice, but HR sided with management both times. So when she was officially terminated she said she was going back to Fair Work Center to seek legal counsel. At that point, her employer offered her a severance package. We supported Juanita in preparing for the severance negotiation with HR and management, which resulted in her getting the payout she was looking for.
A balancing act: standing up for herself & keeping her job
Gabriela is a Mexican immigrant who works at a Mexican restaurant. She contacted Fair Work Center after a cook, who she did not get along with, put an extremely hot pepper in her salad without her knowing. She raised this issue with her supervisor but no action was taken; the cook was not warned, disciplined, or otherwise put on notice of his behavior. So she took it up to a higher level of management and asked for their help. Gabriela was then written up by her immediate supervisor for going over his head to management, even though her immediate supervisor ignored her complaints.
Gabriela had been working at that restaurant for more than 10 years. And in that time, Gabriela’s schedule remained relatively consistent. Yet as soon as she started to raise concerns over her coworker’s aggression towards her, her schedule changed drastically. Not only were her work hours reduced, but she was scheduled to work “clopening” shifts, where she was required to close one day and open the next. She feared she would soon lose her job entirely.
She was referred to Fair Work Center by one of our community partners, and we provided Gabriela about her workplace rights and advised Gabriela about retaliation. We also discussed ways for her to effectively address her concerns with her employer. Gabriela left the clinic feeling empowered to talk to her employer to address the retaliation and to request that her schedule return to what it previously was. After speaking with her employer, she got her old schedule back. In addition, the problematic cook was transferred to work at another location. Gabriela felt relieved to no longer be working with that cook but still had concerns about her personal safety, given the cook’s strong dislike of her. We provided her with information and resources on how to file for a protection order.
Putting tips back on top
Working WA, our sibling organization, has been organizing gig workers (i.e., people who work for app-based companies like Postmates, Instacart, and Doordash) for the past couple of years. Last fall, Mia, a worker on the grocery delivery app Instacart and leader on Working WA’s gig economy campaign, raised the alarm about major pay cuts on Instacart. She and her coworkers were getting paid 30-40% less for each job, the company was using a black-box algorithm to set pay. And what’s more, they were taking customers’ tips instead of passing them on to workers.
When a customer tips, it is generally understood as extra money for the service provided by the worker. But Instacart was just paying the worker less and pocketing the tip. Here’s how it worked. An Instacart shopper might agreed to take a job that promised $10. The customer who made the order agreed to a $5 tip for the work. But instead of that worker getting $15, Instacart used the tip to subsidize the amount they paid the worker for the job.
Working WA started a petition demanding better pay, no more tip theft, and a more transparent pay system for Instacart’s workers. In a few short weeks it was signed by more than 3,500 gig workers and customers outraged by Instacart’s shady pay practices. Workers and customers were standing up and speaking out, and the media took notice. Bloomberg News did a piece on the petition, which generated even greater attention to the petition and generated even more news stories and social media outrage among gig workers and customers alike.
The tremendous weight of public outrage in combination with the power of gig worker’s organizing forced Instacart to put tips back on top of pay. But the change Instacart made wasn’t enough – they’re still paying workers too little and their pay stubs are still a mystery. And these problems aren’t limited to Instacart workers. Gig workers on all apps are facing low pay and lack of transparency. So they are continuing to organize and a national campaign called #PayUp to demand $15 plus expenses for each hour they work, tips on top, and pay transparency.
Catering company forced to take racism off the menu
Jane was a line cook for a catering company that provides food service to colleges. Jane loved her job, the interaction with the students especially. And she was good at it, churning out all of the food that came from the grill. The Executive Chef however made it impossible for her to stay there with unrelenting racially-motivated comments. Jane did everything she could, informing her superiors and human resources, but it didn’t stop. Jane stayed another three months, but eventually she found it too difficult.
We filed a charge of discrimination and a suit to recover wages, and met with the employer at mediation. There, the employer agreed to pay our client to compensate for the trauma caused by their employee and, importantly, agreed to change their policies and provide enhanced training to supervisors and staff.
Though she has a culinary degree, Jane had left cooking after this experience. With the damages recovered from the company, and she dreams of opening her own restaurant.
Wage theft at Emerald City Fence
Dan learned about Fair Work Center from the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) after attempting to make a complaint about his former employer, Emerald City Fence, a statewide fencing company. This company had a practice of deducting an hour of time from each employee’s pay, regardless of how many unpaid or paid rest and meal breaks the employee took. Because all employees at the company were victims of this wage theft, L&I recommended that Dan talk to Fair Work Center to see if he could make a claim for all his co-workers.
We immediately recognized the magnitude of the problem and agreed to work with Dan and his coworkers. Working with Breskin Johnson & Townsend, a local plaintiff’s employment firm and longtime supporter of Fair Work Center, we recently filed a class action case against Emerald City Fence.
404 error – paychecks not found
Jenna worked for a small tech start-up company. She enjoyed the work, but she started noticing issues with the company’s funding. At first, Jenna was patient with her delayed paychecks because she understood funding for a start-up is not always steady. However, the issue quickly escalated from receiving her paychecks late to not receiving compensation for months at a time. Eventually, Jenna’s employer failed to pay her for 12 pay periods for a total of $19,963.69.
This is when she came to Fair Work Center where we are currently supporting her in pursuing a wage complaint through L&I.
If your employer is training you, they should be paying you
Said worked as a driver for a transit company. He was required to do 120 hours of training and promised pay at his hourly rate.
Said came to the Fair Work Center after the employer failed to provide him any pay for the training. We provided Said with information about his rights and walked him through his options. Said decided on a small claims lawsuit. When his employer caught wind of it, the employer sent him a check for half the amount owed, promising the rest soon. Said thought about delaying his filing but, when the check bounced, he realized that he should keep going.
With our support, Said’s small claims case is underway in King County District Court.
The Queen Mary Tea Room gets on board
Coleman worked as a server at the Queen Mary Tea Room in North Seattle. Coleman, who is non-binary, noticed that the Tea Room maintained gender-exclusive bathrooms, with “ladies” and “gentlemen” written on the outside of each door. Indeed, the tea room had been cited by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights several times for violation of Seattle’s Public Accommodations Ordinance, which, among other things, requires all single-occupant restrooms to be gender-neutral restrooms. After each citation, the owner took down the signs, but moved them from the outside to the inside of the door or replaced them with pink and blue ribbons. Coleman raised this concern with the management, but nothing was done. Soon after, Coleman was terminated. Fair Work Center filed suit on Coleman’s behalf and negotiated a settlement by which the Queen Mary Tea Room compensated Coleman, agreed to change its practice and hosted a staff training on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination by LGBTQ Allyship, one of our collaborative partners.
Wage theft at a residential construction company
Martin served as a foreman at a residential construction company. Most of the workers on his crew primarily spoke Spanish, and because Martin was more fluent in English, he served as a communicator with the employer to determine and secure payments for the jobs his crew worked. These contracts between the workers and the employer were oral and based in trust that both sides would uphold their end of the deal. This trust was broken when the employer refused to pay Martin and his peers for their work.
Unfamiliar with the law and unaware of any legal recourse available to him and his coworkers, Martin came to Fair Work Center worried that he would not be able to secure payment for their work. This money was essential to their livelihood. We assisted Martin in preparing a demand letter and filing his case in small claims court. The week before his scheduled court hearing in September, the employer paid Martin and his coworkers everything they were owed. Just as we are certain that Martin will continue to stand up for his fellow workers with the information he learned from visiting Fair Work Center, we are certain that his former employer will think twice before trying to exploit its employees again.
Local Montessori school learns a lesson
Leslie has been a teacher for most of her career. Recently, she took a job as an assistant teacher at a Montessori school in King County. She initially contacted Fair Work Center with questions about her employee handbook. Specifically, she wanted to know if she was entitled to receive pay for a week-long vacation. While looking through her paychecks, we discovered inconsistencies with nearly every one. She worked for the Montessori school for several months, but only one of her paychecks in that time was accurate. We calculated a total of 84.5 hours of missing wages, equivalent to nearly $2,500. We helped Leslie file a case in small claims court this fall, and we will be supporting her throughout the process.
An undocumented immigrant looking for work, Beatriz was excited to take a job cleaning apartments in an affluent Bellevue neighborhood. Soon after she was hired, her employer doubled the number of apartments she needed to clean each day, regardless of how long it took. Beatriz tried but quickly found it was impossible to complete her duties without working a 12-hour shift, something she could not do as a mother with children at home.
When she tried speaking up about her workload and asking for a raise to compensate for the extra work, her employer cut off communication and disappeared without ever paying her for the days she already worked. Unsure of her rights and concerned about retaliation from the employer with regard to her immigration status, Beatriz came to Fair Work Center to learn what protections she had and how she could get paid. After discussing her options, we assisted Beatriz in gathering evidence and filing a complaint with L&I. Two weeks later, L&I informed her that her complaint was processed, and she would be paid the $602 in wages she was owed.
Delivering justice for delivery driver
Yakub first came to Fair Work Center in 2017. As a delivery driver for a small company that contracts with Amazon and others, Yakub started his day bright and early and worked long hours, but he enjoyed his work. Unfortunately, trouble struck soon after he started. He received a ticket because his employer’s van did not have proof of insurance. Instead of paying for the ticket or working with Yakub, the employer tried to put the responsibility on him. In addition, the employer refused to pay him his final paycheck of more than $1,000. We helped Yakub assess different options for getting paid and assisted him in filing his case in small claims court.
He returned recently, almost a year later, with great news – he received a small claims judgment for almost $2,000! The payment covered his final paycheck, the ticket, and associated filing fees. But he also had some bad news. The employer was refusing to pay him and he had no idea how to get his money. By researching the different methods of collecting on a judgment, we helped prepare and file a writ of garnishment against the employer, thereby allowing him to collect the money he was owed.
Hotel worker stands up for health & safety
Lucie is a housekeeper at a hotel in Seattle. Her employer failed to comply with the Hotel Employee Health and Safety Initiative, which limits the amount of cleaning work hotel workers can be required to do in a shift. Not surprisingly, she was injured as the result and asked for light duty while she recovered. The hotel refused her request and, instead, fired her.
Lucie came to Fair Work Center distraught having lost her income, health insurance, and the ability to pay her mounting medical bills. We recognized that Lucie’s immediate medical needs could be covered by workers’ compensation insurance, so we assisted Lucie in filing her claim with the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I). We also connected Lucie with the Seattle Office of Civil Rights to make a complaint of disability discrimination for the hotel’s failure to accommodate her disability and termination. Finally, we connected Lucie with advocates for hotel workers, and we will continue assisting her as needed in addressing the hotel’s ongoing violations of the initiative.
Chunso was an employee of a popular restaurant in Seattle. Her employer retained 40% of her tips. Additionally, the employer failed to provide rest or meal breaks to its servers and to the back of the house workers. Chunso learned about her right to rest breaks from one of our trainings and then raised the issue with the restaurant. She also filed a charge with the Office of Labor Standards. The employer terminated her employment citing her “attitude.” In collaboration with OLS, the Clinic took the case and will be representing Chunso in a lawsuit against the employer. We have been able to identify other workers at the restaurant who will also be plaintiffs. We have also learned that this restaurant consistently employees undocumented workers in its kitchen with the promise of “sponsorship” on their application for work authorization. But that promise never materializes, even after years of sub-standard employment. We are working to connect with those back of house workers to provide immigration support as well as to let them know of their employment rights.
Ahmed, a Somali man who works for a hotel in Seattle, came in to the Legal Clinic after being injured on the job. After his first injury, he had requested a reasonable accommodation from the hotel, and his supervisor denied his requests and then made derogatory comments about his English. He also cut Ahmed’s hours. Ahmed tried to continue working without an accommodation but was injured two more times over the course of the following six weeks. The Legal Clinic helped Ahmed file a complaint with Seattle Office for Civil Rights, which is now investigating his case. In addition, the Legal Clinic helped him file a worker’s compensation complaint with Washington Department of Labor & Industries. The worker is now receiving pay for time lost while he is out of work recouperating.
Min worked as an educator at a childcare center in Seattle and came to Legal Clinic wanting to recover her last two weeks of pay. In speaking with Min, we quickly realized that she had been underpaid for the last year-and-a-half. We expect to resolve this with a demand letter to the employer.
Maria works at non-profit preschool as a teacher assistant in Seattle. She has preexisting medical conditions that requires her to take time off during shifts to go to doctor appointments. The lead teacher is very hostile to her, calling her names, making fun of her skin color, and physically accosting her on the school’s playground in front of the children. Her employer refused Maria’s request to reassign her to a different classroom away from her abusive lead teacher. The Fair Work Legal Clinic helped the worker file a complaint with Seattle Office for Civil Rights, which is now investigating the matter. We also connected Maria to an attorney who will be representing her without charge.
Ray works for a large property management company and is assigned to several apartment complexes in Seattle. He was paid a flat rate for 20 hours per week, regardless of his actual hours, and he got no meal or rest breaks. His employer failed to provide paid sick and safe leave time, and when Ray got sick and took time off, he was fired. The Legal Clinic will be representing Ray in legal action against his employer.
Roger is an African American man who worked at a marijuana retailer in Seattle as a floor supervisor. He was discriminatorily denied a promotion to manager so he contacted the Fair Work Legal Clinic. The Legal Clinic helped the worker file a complaint with the Seattle Office of Civil Rights. We quickly learned that many other workers had experienced similar discrimination on the job. In addition, we learned that the employer had implemented an invalid tipping policy, and several other workers had been threatened for bringing up the issue. We assisted the worker in filing a charge with Office of Labor Standards (OLS). Roger also mobilized other workers to talk with OLS. And within one week of his complaint, OLS sent a letter to his employer identifying all of the issues and requiring the company prove they are in full compliance with Seattle’s labor standards. The employer has one month to demonstrate compliance or OLS will initiate a full investigation.
Sue and Bob are a married couple who were both fired from their jobs at specialty foods and personal product manufacturer. Sue and Bob filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging a hostile work environment on account of their physical disabilities. They were denied reasonable accommodation for their disabilities and then were fired in retaliation for complaining about the discrimination. In May, we settled both Sue and Bob’s charges with their employer. With the assistance of a pro bono mediator, we reached a resolution whose terms included a monetary settlement and a staff-wide training on discrimination and reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities at the employer.