In early June fast food workers across the country, including in Seattle, staged a 24-hour strike at some of the most popular chains in the area: McDonalds, Subway, Taco Bell, and more. As we previously discussed, the workers had many general concerns about employment practices.
One of the general themes of those participating in the strike was the chronic problem of “wage theft” at these locations. As discussed in a recent Nation article, and supported by a new survey of the fast food industry, there may be an epidemic of employees not being paid for all of the time that they are working. Whenever this occurs it is often referring to as “wage theft.” It is a violation of both state and federal employment laws, and it is critical for affected employees to step up and demand accountability.
Working without Pay
The research which brought the issue to light involved surveys of 500 fast workers. Of that group a shocking 84% reported instances where wage theft occurred. Some of the most common examples of wage theft in the industry include non-payment for working before and after a shift, working overtime without the hourly pay bump, working through break, or not being reimbursed for out-of-pocket costs.
This most recent survey which spurred the nationwide strikes is not the first to highlight problems in the industry. In fact, a 2008 study from the National Employment Law project (view online here) found that many fast food workers–and others in low wage jobs–lose upwards of 15% of their income to wage theft. For example, spending time counting a register or closing up while off the clock can easily eat into an employee’s wages.
Much of the debate around this issue involves pointing the finger of blame. Many labor advocacy groups are demanding that the umbrella corporations themselves take action to stem the wage theft problem. As the authors of the survey explained, “Because the corporations design, maintain, monitor and profit from the fast food delivery system, they should be the focus of regulatory and political action to eradicate wage theft.” Conversely, those large entities usually brush off responsibility by claiming that any wage theft problems are caused by individual franchise decisions.
Legal measures have been debated by the Seattle City Council and the Washington statehouse lawmakers for the last several years related to different types of wash theft problems. For example, earlier this year lawmakers in Olympia debated a bill which would crack down on the misclassification of employers as independent contractors in order to skimp on minimum wage, overtime pay and similar rules. This is on top of laws that already passed in previous years to combat wage-theft. Seattle and King County similarly enacted their own wage theft ordinances.
Wage theft is an obvious violation of the law, and employers who engage in this conduct should never be allowed to get away with it. If you have been affected by these practices, be sure to visit with a lawyer who works on employment matters to understand your legal options.