A MODEST PROPOSAL | About wage theft

Alan was a go-getter. His prominent family bought his way into Stanford University, and Alan really didn’t need to work, but his goal was to stand on his own two feet. So, he got into the chocolate-covered, frozen-banana business.

Alan’s business was simple: Knock together a plywood shack at the county fair, sell his product at $3 a banana and keep overhead low.

It was the last requirement that introduced me to “wage theft.”

Alan’s little brother was a high school chum, who knew better than to “work” for his brother. I found out why.

Alan would hire teenagers to make his merchandise and staff his stand at the Sonoma County Fair. I needed a job, figuring this would be a way to make a hundred dollars — Alan had promised the eight teens he hired at least 25 hours at $4 an hour, then the minimum wage.

Our factory was a garage, with a picnic table covered with wax paper.

It was late June, and the California sun had driven the temperature into the 90s.

We workers peeled the bananas and stuck Popsicle sticks into them. Then we’d dip them into gallon cans of syrupy, brown goo and place them between layers of wax paper and back into the original banana boxes.

When 10 boxes were full, Alan would put them in his Volkswagen and drive them to a nearby strip mall, where he’d rented space in a commercial freezer.

Inside the garage, we teens all broke into sweat. Alan didn’t provide us with gloves, and since the garage was leaky, every fly within a 10-mile radius was drawn to our assembly line.

There’s no telling how much added protein and salt went into those frozen treats. We made thousands of them and sold them all to unsuspecting customers.

We were paid at the end of the fair. We were owed at least $100 apiece. Alan gave each of us a $20 bill.

Karma won out.

Alan got a degree in law from Stanford, but his ethics would lead to a financial crime and a stay in a federal prison.

Bad-business models
When you’re a kid and you don’t know any better, unethical business people will take advantage of you. As you grow older, you expect this type of nonsense to stop, but it doesn’t. Wage theft — the failure of a business to pay employees — is all too common.

On April 25, the Seattle City Council passed legislation authored by Councilmember Tim Burgess, chair of the Public Safety and Education Committee, that fills a hole in state law intended to protect workers from exploitation.

Although the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries provides a way for workers to file complaints against abusive employers — 4,000 claims were made in 2010 — it does not have the resources to go after the crooks.

Recently, the ordinance became law.

As described by Burgess, “It allows the city to withhold or revoke business licenses from individuals who have been assessed penalties and have still refused to pay them. If you don’t comply with a final ruling of a court or state agency ordering payment, we won’t let your business operate in Seattle.”

While actively supported by Casa Latina and other providers of day laborers — a group obviously at risk for wage theft — the new ordinance also applies to white-collar businesses. Wage theft can happen in cubicles or on construction sites.

A business model that leads to high-tech wage theft is for the company to have only a handful of full-time employees (directors and managers) and then a group of consultants on call.

The business enters into agreements with reputable large companies (like an Expedia or a Microsoft) to perform a task for a set fee, but then abuses workers hired at an hourly wage to get the job done.

The abuse may take several forms. You may be required to attend meetings without being paid, to review documents or test code without being allowed to bill for those hours.

Administrative duties can stay off the record.

Time budgeted for a project can be micro-managed, so a worker will be offered a few hours per week, regardless of what’s needed to do the work.

You’re being had if your boss breaks up assigned hours arbitrarily, say, giving you six hours to accomplish two days of work, and then demands you work for free to catch up.

Another tactic of dishonest employers is to cancel a contract when the employee demands back wages. If you find yourself in that situation, remind the employer that the company may have violated the contract, but you did not.

Getting serious
Hold them accountable. Get an attorney if you must, and open a claim with the state’s Department of Labor and Industries.

If you suspect something’s wrong because you haven’t been paid in weeks, something is wrong.

Get everything in writing, and be prepared to use that information.

Sometimes, the crooks will pay up when they know you’re serious. Sometimes, you’ll need to fight.

“People commit wage theft because they think they can get away with it,” Burgess said. “We want to change that mindset. By encouraging greater compliance and leveling the playing field for all businesses and workers, a targeted campaign against wage theft will benefit everyone who does business fairly and honestly in Seattle.”

And what about those who do business unfairly and dishonestly in Seattle?
Well, I know what they can do with a frozen banana.

CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist.[[In-content Ad]]