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Seeking to spotlight what they say is widespread abuse of low-wage workers, a group of fast-food employees filed criminal complaints Thursday alleging wage theft by Seattle-area restaurants.

In a news conference on the steps of Seattle City Hall organized by local activists, workers said they’d been forced to work off the clock, denied breaks or otherwise been underpaid.

Five workers filed complaints under a Seattle law that makes it a gross misdemeanor for employers to illegally withhold wages. That law was approved by the Seattle City Council in 2011 but has not resulted in any prosecutions — something the activists hope to change.

Caroline Durocher, who filed one of the complaints, said she was routinely underpaid at a Ballard Taco Bell where she worked earlier this year.

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Durocher said a manager there would automatically clock her out an hour after closing time, but she’d frequently have to keep working well beyond that to finish cleaning up.

In all, Durocher estimates, she lost $800 in wages. “That is money that would have meant a whole lot to me,” she said, saying it could have gone toward a deposit on an apartment or a needed root canal.

A Taco Bell spokesman said he did not have information to comment on Durocher’s specific allegations. But in an emailed statement, he said the company has a “strict policy to comply with all federal, state and local labor laws” and “zero tolerance” for violations.

Another worker, Geoff Belforti, alleged his former employer, a Qdoba Mexican Grill on Capitol Hill, had simply failed to deliver his final paycheck for $150 despite his repeated requests.

“I need this money to live and I have not received it,” he said.

Qdoba said in a statement its policy “is to properly compensate all of our employees,“ adding that if an employee has “proper documentation indicating that he or she has not been properly compensated, we’re happy to review the information with that individual.”

Anthony Anton, CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association, said employers need to follow wage laws. “If there is a problem with wage integrity and if there are steps that we can help better educate and inform, let’s talk about that,” he said.

Rebecca Smith, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, said wage theft — from shaving hours, refusing to pay overtime, or other means — is at epidemic levels in low-wage jobs.

A national survey of low-wage workers conducted by the nonprofit group in 2008 found more than two-thirds said they’d experienced some type of pay-related workplace violation in the previous week — from being denied breaks to being forced to work off the clock.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) investigated 3,908 wage complaints from workers in fiscal 2013 — about 700 of them food-industry related, said spokeswoman Dana Botka.

L&I has recovered more than $11 million to nearly 9,000 workers since 2007, when a new wage-protection law was passed. About 80 percent of those refunds came without a citation being issued.

Seattle is the only city in Washington with a law criminalizing wage theft. The ordinance makes it a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Sage Wilson with Working Washington, a coalition of labor and community organizations, said the workers were pursuing the issue under the city’s ordinance because they believe the threat of criminal prosecution is more of a deterrent.

The workers at Thursday’s news conference were joined by city officials, including Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who vowed the city will take their complaints seriously.

Craig Sims, chief of the criminal division for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said the city has not charged any employers under the wage-theft law because previous complaints made by workers had not been “factually sufficient.”

But Sims said the city stands ready to investigate and prosecute the new complaints if the evidence is sufficient. He urged anyone who believes they have been a victim of wage theft to call the Seattle Police Department’s nonemergency number at (206) 625-5011.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or On Twitter @Jim_Brunner

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