Labor Day Worker Protection Report to be annual record of efforts on behalf of Washington workers
OLYMPIA — Today, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson released his inaugural Labor Day Worker Protection Report. The report details work as part of the Attorney General’s Office Worker Protection Initiative over the past year to protect workers’ rights in the State of Washington and beyond. The office will release the report annually.
The report includes overviews on civil and criminal cases handled by the office, legislation the office spearheaded, and additional advocacy done by Attorney General Ferguson to preserve the rights of workers in the state.
“Working Washingtonians can always count on the Attorney General’s Office to fight for them,” Ferguson said. “I’m proud of the work my legal team has been doing to protect hardworking Washingtonians from wage theft and unsafe working conditions.”
Ending “no-poach” practices nationwide
This report follows a year of eradicating “no-poach” agreements in the state, and around the country.
No-poach clauses appear in franchise agreements between owners of franchises and corporate headquarters. The clauses prohibit employees from moving among stores in the same corporate chain, a practice that economists believe stagnates wages. For example, the clauses would prohibit an employee at one UPS Store location from accepting employment from another UPS Store franchise location for higher pay.
Initially designed to protect trade secrets, these clauses proliferated in employment contracts in industries across the country — including fast food restaurants, hotels, gyms, and many others — and prevented employees from accepting better opportunities or advancing their careers.
In 2018, Ferguson announced his goal of ending the use of no-poach agreements nationwide.
As a result of the Attorney General’s initiative, 67 national chains with an estimated 136,000 locations have ended the practice. The changes benefit millions of workers across the U.S. This increases job mobility, and improves employee access better benefits and additional economic opportunity.
Holding Washington businesses accountable
The report highlights enforcement work from the past year to protect workers and hold their employers accountable.
When a Quincy-based agricultural company failed to protect its workers from a foreman accused of sexually harassing female workers, Ferguson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. As a result, Horning Brothers paid $525,000 in 2018 to compensate the workers harmed, and entered into a legally binding agreement implementing a variety of changes to better handle complaints and train workers and management on civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. The company is prohibited from allowing the now former foreman, Hermillo Cruz, to hold any supervisory position.
As a result of a joint investigation by the Attorney General’s Office and the Washington Department of Labor & Industries, a Maple Valley contractor pleaded guilty to felony theft and was ordered to repay more than $25,000 he and his company stole from workers. The Attorney General’s Office and L&I work together to enforce laws protecting the safety, health and security of workers in Washington.
Standing up for workers
In 2019, Ferguson successfully proposed agency-request legislation strengthening Washington’s wage theft laws. The bill, Senate Bill 5035, increased 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. Prior to this bill, these penalties had not increased since 1985.
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.
The report also highlights work protecting Hanford workers. In 2015, Ferguson filed a lawsuit to hold the federal government accountable for risks to health and safety of workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States. The 177 underground tanks hold more than 56 million gallons of waste. Some 1,500 different volatile chemical gases — many of which are highly toxic and known carcinogens — have been found in the tanks. Exposure to these chemicals is known to cause numerous harmful health impacts including lung disease, central nervous system suppression, nerve damage, and cancers of the liver, lung, blood, and other organs.
In September 2018, the Attorney General’s Office reached a historic agreement requiring the U.S. Department of Energy to: Test technology to capture and destroy tank vapors; install a vapor monitoring, detection and alarming system in several tank farms; keep worker safety measures, including supplied air, in place while testing continues; improve information sharing around vapor exposures and worker protections; and pay Washington and Hanford challenge nearly $1 million.
The Attorney General’s Office is also fighting to protect Hanford workers’ access to workers compensation benefits. In 2018, the Legislature passed a bill making it easier for Hanford workers to access benefits if they get sick as a result of their work, similar to protections in place for firefighters and first responders. The federal Department of Justice has sued the state over that law. In June 2019, the court sided with Washington and rejected the federal government’s challenge. The Department of Justice has appealed that decision.
Know your rights, report violations
Attorney General Ferguson is committed to standing up for Washington workers. If you believe your workplace rights have been violated, including not receiving pay, being denied rest or meal breaks, or not being allowed to use paid sick leave to care for a family member, you can file an online complaint with L&I, or download a complaint form and return it to the L&I office in the county where the business is located.
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.firstname.lastname@example.org