Governments struggle to enforce ‘living wage’ laws
Seattle – — States and cities whose lawmakers proudly passed “living wage” laws are finding it difficult to make sure employers actually pay their workers accordingly.
Seattle and San Francisco, and the states of Oregon, California and New York are phasing in wage increases that will grow to $15 an hour or more.
Evidence of compliance is plain to see in the hours-worked total on most pay stubs, but state and federal laws don’t require employers to routinely provide this crucial detail to the government. Without this data, wage enforcers who are empowered to investigate generally wait until a worker complains.
And many workers — especially those in precarious situations — fear they’ll be fired if they speak up.
“It’s pretty shocking how common the violations are,” said Donna Levitt, director of the labor enforcement office in San Francisco, which began ramping up to $15 an hour last year. Her office has recovered more than $10 million in back wages since 2004.
The new laws are meaningless without proactive enforcement, labor advocates say, citing research that shows roughly one in four businesses nationwide already cheat their workers out of minimum wages.
“It’s just so pervasive and so rampant,” said Haeyoung Yoon of the National Employment Law Project.
Her group advocates higher fines to give employers more incentives to follow the laws, along with tougher enforcement nationwide.
“There’s just not enough boots on the ground to wipe it out, because the problem is so enormous,” Yoon said.
Without a proactive approach, officials aren’t even sure how many violators are out there.
“We often get the question: What’s the compliance rate?” Levitt said. “We have no idea.”
Enforcement is expensive, but some state and local officials and advocates envision recovering the costs of investigations through higher fines, or anticipating more revenue as more people are paid their legal wages.
Some employers simply ignore or misunderstand these minimum wage laws. Others deliberately underestimate the hours their employees work, or require them to work unpaid and off-the-clock.
Tiny SeaTac, Washington, has effectively outsourced enforcement to the courts since it became the nation’s first city to require wages of $15 an hour or more in 2014.
More than a dozen class actions were filed this year on behalf of workers in and around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
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