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THE state Department of Labor and Industries is asking the Legislature for increased authority to collect unpaid wages owed to Washington workers. The department has made a strong case for this authority, and the Legislature should grant it.

Labor and Industries was given the job of collecting unpaid wages in 2006. About 85 percent of employers facing a wage claim have paid when confronted by the agency. Some have gone through the appeal process and won or lost. But there remain some who have lost their appeals and haven’t paid. Over the years, the total of these unpaid claims has risen to $10.3 million, with an average claim of $3,054.

Most of the claims are made by low-wage workers who have been waiting a long time to be paid. Some claims are not collectible, but those that are ought to be collected.

Senate Bill 5360 and House Bill 1467, offered on behalf of Labor and Industries by Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, and Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, would give the department several powers the state uses to collect money for itself. The principal one is the power to search for employer bank accounts electronically and issue an order to “hold and deliver” the money owed. The Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Revenue do this already.

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The bill also would allow Labor and Industries to put a lien on assets about to be removed, and in extreme cases to ask a judge for permission to seize assets and put them up for sheriff’s sale. The department already has these powers in workers’ compensation cases.

Director Joel Sacks told legislators he expected these powers would be rarely used for wage collection, but that sometimes “having the tools themselves assists in the collection process.”

Wages owed should be paid. The state should have the power to enforce it.

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