Senate splits over free pass for employers who underpay workers

Sen. John Braun Credit: Washington State Legislature

To the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, the bill would bring predictability and security to an employer trying to comply with complicated state wage regulations.

To the Senate minority Democrats, the bill would give shady employers a way to game the wage system with immunity.

The Washington Senate voted 25-23 strictly along caucus lines Monday to declare that employers are not liable for failures to pay minimum wages or overtime pay under the Washington Minimum Wage Act if the business can prove it acted in good faith after consulting with the state.

The Senate passed this same bill last year 25-24 to send to the House, where it  stalled in committee. Again, the bill by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, goes to the House.

Braun said the bill's purpose is to provide security to businesses who consult with the Washington Department of Labor & Industries on a wage or overtime matter, follow that guidance and then find the guidance became outdated or was wrong. He also said his bill is modeled exactly after a federal law in force since 1947.

"This bill has nothing to do with minimum wage. This bill has nothing to do with overtime. It's about negotiating the subtle differences between federal labor law and state labor law.," Braun said. 

Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, argued that a business could get bad guidance from the Labor and Industries, and then get fined by the same department a few weeks later. "What message is sent to our employers and our state? The government is out to get you," she said. Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said, "Small businesses throughout Washington  state are under attack by the Washington Legislature." 

Democrats argued that a dishonest employer could deliberately shortchange workers on wages or overtime, and claim it an honest mistake when caught — making such a business immune from legal penalties.

"There are bad actors who'll take advantage of the situation and stiff their workers," said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip. Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said, "We're talking about excusing them from liability … even when they're wrong."

"We're not leveling the playing field," said Sen. Sharon Nelson, the Democratic minority leader from Maury Island. "We're letting employers to have a sledgehammer over their workers."

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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