Imagine working 50, 60, 70 hours a week helping to construct a multimillion dollar, state-of-the-art public building one sheet of drywall at a time. Now imagine that you only receive six dollars an hour, are threatened by your employer, denied workers compensation for on the job injuries, and could be fired at any moment if you complain about the situation. Now imagine that it does not matter whether you are legally authorized to work in the United States or not or whether you are a member of a union or not. For some construction workers in Washington and in the Northwest, this situation is all too easy to imagine.
The Seattle P-I recently reported on a Seattle undercover operation focusing on local subcontractors. As part of a joint police and Department of Labor and Industries investigation, a Seattle police officer underwent training in dry walling before getting employment with one of the suspected contractors.
According to the report, the officer was sent to investigate allegations of subcontractors failing to follow wage laws. Union leaders had raised concerns of “rampant” wage violations for union and non-union employees. To complicate the situation, subcontractors change names frequently and can be difficult to track. There were reports of threats of violence and deportation; of subcontractors requiring employees to work seven days a week and more than 17 hours a day for less than $100 a day; and of paying employees with illegal drugs instead of money.
The targeted contractor, Dathan Williams, had received a lucrative government contract and was suspected of undercutting his competitors at the expense of his employees. The investigation found that Williams was using threats of deportation to keep his employees from complaining about his failure to pay them proper wages, also known as wage theft. Prosecutors believe he owes employees and the state thousands of dollars in back pay and taxes. Williams is believed to be one of the worst offenders, but not the only contractor engaging in these illegal workplace practices.
Washington Wage Laws
Washington’s minimum wage is currently the highest in the nation at $9.19. The federal minimum wage is $7.25. If the subcontractor’s employees really are working under these conditions, they would be working well below not only the federal minimum wage, but at nearly half of Seattle’s minimum wage. Not to mention the fact that working 17 hours a day, seven days a week is well beyond the federal hours limit and they would likely have been eligible for overtime pay. Furthermore, the prevailing wage for these employees’ positions is $46 an hour. According to Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries construction and maintenance contractors must pay their employees the prevailing wage if they are working on projects paid for with public funds. The prevailing wage is the wage that the majority of employers in the field and in the area pay their employees and is set by the trade’s regulatory agency. Contractors, subcontractors, and all other employers are required to pay their employees for all of the hours worked and according to state and federal laws.
If you believe you have been the victim of wage theft, contacting HKM employment attorneys can help.