Monday, June 13, 2022
CLEA Outstanding Clinical Student or Team Award: Jessie McMillan in Seattle's Workers' Rights Clinic
Jessie represented a short haul truck driver who had been misclassified as an independent contractor. On behalf of her client, Jessie filed the complaint and the Department found the claim had merit. The Department then sent a letter to the employer saying that if the employer paid the unpaid wages – and nothing more – the Department would consider the claim to be closed. On behalf of our client, Jessie responded, asking for clarification about the missing interest payment and unassessed penalty. The Department replied saying that, as a matter of policy, it never collects interest or penalties when the employer agrees to pay the wages.
Jessie quickly discovered that this problem was far more significant and insidious than she initially thought. Her individual client was owed $1,000 and about $18 in interest, making “holding out” for the interest impractical; the client needed his money sooner rather than later. On the other hand, as Jessie described, “if an employer knowingly withholds wages from one of its workers, but then later pays what is owed to the worker without interest, it effectively takes an interest-free loan and the worker pays the price.” Jessie also recognized that this is an issue that disproportionately harms BIPOC workers:
The majority of workers who come to the Department of Labor and Industries with wage theft claims are low wage, often immigrant, and disproportionately BIPOC. We believe that the Department’s systematic brokering of no interest loans from these workers to their employers is unfair and adds to existing wealth disparities.
Recognizing the systemic nature of the problem, Jessie reached for a systemic solution. Without any prodding from me, Jessie drafted a letter to key Washington State legislators describing the problem and urging action. The same day that she sent the letter, she received responses directly from two separate legislators indicating that they would be taking up the issue in the next legislative session.