New bill increases prevailing wage penalties for the first time since 1985, ensures workers receive interest on stolen wages on prevailing wage jobs and closes major loophole
OLYMPIA — The Legislature passed Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s agency request legislation strengthening Washington’s wage theft laws in the prevailing wage arena. Prevailing wage is most common in government contracts. Prevailing wage laws prevent a “race to the bottom” as contractors seek to lower worker pay in order to underbid each other.
The bill, SB 5035, increases the maximum penalty for prevailing wage violations from one thousand dollars or 20 percent of the violation, whichever is greater, to five thousand dollars or 50 percent of the violation, whichever is greater. These penalties have not increased since 1985.
Moreover, the bill ensures that workers who experience wage theft receive at least 1 percent monthly interest in addition to their stolen wages.
Ferguson’s legislation also closes a major loophole in Washington’s prevailing wage laws that allows repeat and willful violators to avoid a penalty or sanction if they respond to a wage complaint by returning the stolen pay to the worker before the state can take additional legal action. This loophole derives from the state’s limited authority to file enforcement actions when there are “unpaid wages” – a term that was undefined before now.
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, sponsored SB 5035, which passed the state Senate in a bipartisan vote of 40-7 on March 1. The bill passed House of Representatives April 10 by a bipartisan vote of 59-36, with minor changes. The Senate agreed to the House’s changes to the bill today by a vote of 34-15. Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, sponsored the House version of the bill.
“This bill ensures that employers who cheat their workers out of hard-earned pay will face consequences, the same as you or I would face if we stole something,” said Ferguson. “Allowing the state to pursue penalties against employers that intentionally rip off their workers protects hardworking Washingtonians and their families.”
“Wage theft or delay of pay cause real harm to workers and their families who are often just trying to get by,” said Sen. Saldaña. “This bill will protect workers, support the businesses who pay quality wages to workers on time, and hold accountable the bad actors who fail to do so.”
"This bill is about holding those responsible for wage theft accountable," said Rep. Sells. "We give too many violators an escape route. This beefs up the enforcement so people can expect to get the pay for which they worked."
The Washington State Building and Construction Trades and IUOE Local 612 partnered with Attorney General Ferguson, Sen. Saldaña and Rep. Sells on the legislation. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries assisted with drafting. The Attorney General’s Office worked closely with the state’s contractor community in order to avoid impacts to contractors who might make inadvertent errors.
“We at the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council greatly appreciate the action taken by the Legislature. Led by Attorney General Bob Ferguson and his team, supporters and opponents worked together to produce an end result that protects Washington’s construction industry,” said Mark Riker, Executive Secretary of Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council. “Both labor and employers will now know that there will be consequences and a real deterrence from violating our prevailing wage laws. I wish to thank Attorney General Ferguson, Senator Saldaña and their respective staff members for taking this important action to protect workers, employers and taxpayers.”
“IUOE Local 612 is pleased to have partnered with Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Washington State Legislature to close critical loopholes in prevailing wage laws,” said Jim Hernandez, business representative of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 612. “This helps Washington State workers and contractors by leveling the ‘playing field’ to further protect middle-class family wage jobs.”
Wage cheats cannot bid on any public works projects until they pay the penalty and wages with interest in full. If an employer cheats workers more than once in a five-year period, the law bars them from any public works projects for two years.
Employers' inadvertent filings and reporting errors do not trigger penalties.
The Washington Building Trades, Faith Action Network and Working Washington also supported SB 5035.
This is the second major Attorney General request wage theft legislation to pass the Legislature. In 2017, the Legislature adopted Attorney General Ferguson’s legislation prohibiting willful wage theft violators from receiving government contracts. Combating wage theft is part of the Attorney General Office’s strategic plan.
More information about Ferguson’s 2019 agency request legislation is available on the office’s legislative information page.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.Aho@atg.wa.gov