Seattle city councilman's wife may be violating state labor laws

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Typical liberal hypocrite...

Typical liberal hypocrite… The wife of Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien may be violating state law by accepting volunteer labor at her trendy fermented food kitchen in Ballard.
Julie O’Brien and a partner founded Firefly Kitchens in 2010 to share their “collective knowledge and passion” for naturally fermented products, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and salsa, according to the company’s website.
While the operation began on a small scale – using rented kitchen space and selling kraut at local farmers’ markets – the company scaled up production in 2012. By the end of 2013, according to the website, Firefly Kitchens had quadrupled its sales and distribution.
Firefly products are now sold at retailers in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and parts of Canada. At PCC Natural Markets, jars of Firefly kimchi sell for more than $10.50 apiece.
Despite its growth, Firefly Kitchens has continued to use free labor, which could be a violation of state laws surrounding minimum wage.
During an interview with Evening Magazine, a local news and entertainment show, O’Brien highlighted the fact that Firefly Kitchens uses unpaid workers. “I think one of the biggest things we do is we have volunteers come in and obviously it’s a win-win for us,” O’Brien said in the January 8 episode. “Because when we started, we didn’t have any money and we still don’t. We would have these people who were so excited about this food that they would come and help us,” she told the show.
O'Brien (background) with socialist council member Kshama Sawant

O’Brien (background) with socialist council member Kshama Sawant

Evening Magazine did not mention that O’Brien was the wife of Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien, who was a leading proponent of an ordinance to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. O’Brien once went as far as to march with fast food workers who walked off the job to demand higher pay.
KIRO Radio host Dori Monson questioned how Julie O’Brien could justify having unpaid volunteers when other small businesses have expressed concern over how to afford the $15 minimum wage that her husband helped to pass.
“(How) can you demand $15 an hour for all other businesses when your wife is not paying some of her workers because she can’t afford it?” Monson said on his show earlier this month. “When a councilman is demanding that businesses pay $15 an hour, whether they can afford it or not, and his wife is using volunteer labor – that is the height of hypocrisy.”
But Julie O’Brien’s actions may be more than hypocritical. They could be against the law. The Washington Minimum Wage Act clearly states that volunteers are not allowed at a for-profit business.
Firefly Kitchens is registered as an LLC, or Limited Liability Cooperation, with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office and does not have nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
“If I’m a for-profit business, then the people I get to work for me are employees,” said Matthew Erlich, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. “Volunteers cannot replace actual workers that would have to be hired to do the same job.”
Erlich could not speak to specifics about Firefly Kitchens, but said not even family members could work as volunteers and would have to be paid at least minimum wage. There are certain exceptions for farms, he said.
The law is meant to protect workers, business owners, and taxpayers. “It opens the door to a lot of problems, because like a lot of laws, they’re put in place to prevent certain abuses,” said Patrick “Leo” McGuigan, a Seattle labor attorney. “You can’t allow it because it can be abused. People can be manipulated and made to say they’re volunteers.”
Erlich said the law also prevents issues surrounding on-the-job injuries. “To have somebody coming in and doing volunteer work, there aren’t protections for that person or the employee,” he said.
In 2010, a winery in California was fined $115,000 for using volunteer labor after one of those workers was injured on the job and tried to make a workers’ compensation claim. The California Department of Industrial Relations cited Westover Winery in July 2014 for not paying minimum wage, not providing wage statements, and not paying workers’ compensation insurance. The winery was fined $29,375 for back wages, $29,375 in liquidated damages, and $56,800 for minimum wage violations, pay stub violations, and failure to have workers’ compensation coverage, the department said. California and Washington have nearly identical laws when it comes to who can utilize volunteers.
McGuigan, the labor attorney, said business owners have a responsibly to know those types of laws. “To say that you don’t know, that you think people can just walk in and start working for you? That’s a hard sell, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Since opening in 2010, Julie O’Brien and her business partner have spoken with several media outlets about Firefly Kitchens. In those interviews, they discussed openly the use of volunteer labor.
“They’re very proud that the business has grown and it’s grown apparently because they have the help of the community, which now I understand means people working for free,” McGuigan said. “I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but I would say they need to have a look at the law.”
Councilman Mike O’Brien told KIRO Radio on Tuesday that neither he nor his wife were aware that the use of volunteer workers was forbidden at a for-profit business. O’Brien said he himself had volunteered for Firefly, selling their products at a local farmers’ market. “It didn’t cross her mind, I don’t think, to go look at what are the state’s wage rules,” he said. “Regardless of whether I’m a city councilmember or not, my wife runs a small business in Seattle. She need to abide by all those laws.”
Asked whether he had read the state’s minimum wage law while researching whether to raise Seattle’s minimum wage, O’Brien said he had not seen the section of the law that deals with volunteer labor.
“I know that running a small business is a challenge, you have to wear so many different hats,” he said. “You’re focused on bringing a product market and making a living, and there’s lots of regulations – for good reason, that are in place.”
He said his wife will reevaluate her use of volunteers. “Julie takes this very seriously,” he said. “Firefly Kitchens is going to go back and do their best to understand how the law applies, if there are volunteers being used out of compliance, they will get into compliance and make them whole.” A call directly to Firefly Kitchens was not returned.
An Issaquah woman who claimed to have volunteered at Firefly told KIRO Radio she was excited about the opportunity to learn and did not expect to be paid. “They have volunteers the first Thursday of each month and I could not wait to be a part of it,” she wrote in an email. “It is amazing to me that they are willing to help share their secrets to us knowing that we will no longer be purchasing their products in Whole Foods or the PCC. It’s about getting healthy and feeling better and they offer me that when I am able to join them in their kitchen and learn the technique.”
Erlich said the Department of Labor and Industries would launch an investigation into Firefly Kitchens if a complaint were made. He said violations of state wage law can be costly, particularly for small businesses. “It’s just much easier to pay people for the work that they do,” he said.
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0 responses to “Seattle city councilman's wife may be violating state labor laws

  1. “Rules don’t apply to me” is one of the defining attributes of pathological narcissists.

  2. These people are identical twins of their leftist siblings in Massachusetts.

  3. Ditto. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Especially if you are dealing in a food service business. I wonder what other laws they are breaking.

  4. Personally, I think those that are working for them for free have a right to do so. Are they being paid with product? Who knows. Obviously,the people that are working for free in the O’Brian’s shop can afford to do so. While I agree that the O’Brians are hypocrites, I still feel personal responsibility comes into play here. If the workers are not being held against their will it’s their choice to work for nothing so there is nothing that can or should be done about it. To do so opens a whole new can of worms as far as helping people just for the sake of helping. We don’t want to outlaw that too. 😳

    • I totally agree Northerngirl. If someone wants to volunteer to do anything that should be their personal choice. Minimum wage laws in and of themselves are illegal. If we had a Congress that was more interested in upholding the Constitution of these United States than in getting reelected to get rich and line their pockets, we would not have minimum wage laws.
      However, this case is priceless in that this woman’s husband is a ‘public servant’ who worked very hard to impose an illegal law — minimum wage — on everyone but himself or maybe I should say his wife’s business. They feel above the law, that they themselves help pass.
      While we are on this subject, I would like to bring up illegal immigration. The one thing you never ever hear the Nancy Pelosi’s of this world talk about is why they are so hell-bent on letting illegals into the country. One reason, of course, is for their votes. The other BIG reason — and probably bigger than votes because we all know elections are bought and paid for — is they have no intentions of paying their landscapers, servants, household help, nannies, drivers, carpenters, plumpers, etc. the full minimum wage, at alone union wages, that they work so hard to hoist on everyone else. In order to circumvent the minimum wage laws they have to have lots and lots of people willing to work for pennies to assure a supply of labor. Again, do as I say, not as I do.

    • I concur if you want to volunteer it should be allowed. Unfortunately between govt regulations and a litigious environment, it’s more difficult. I think it depends upon the nature of the business, too. Here in OK, you can volunteer at where I work – a retirement center. Food service might be stricter because of food handling (and permit) requirements.

  5. Imagine this:A little Church about a hundred years old needs a roof replaced;a local roofing contractor who goes to that Church wants to do the job for free,on his days off,but Uncle Sam won’t let him do THAT. He has to make it just like any other job he does,except for a little lower pay scale. (THAT’S probably against the law,too.) Make an appointment,write an estimate,go out a couple of weeks later,during the work week and do the job,charging the bare minimum $15.00 per hour each for him and a couple of others who would have gladly joined him in doing the job free,if it was allowed by law. That’s $45.00 per hour for who knows how many hours. Well,even with the materials donated (I I THINK he can still do that-he’ll have to check with IRS and the other “Authorities” who have their “hands” in his business.) there goes the little Church’s budget for THIS year. If someone wants to volunteer ANYWHERE,it’s THEIR labor they’re contributing,it’s NONE of the Government’s business what they feel it’s worth. How long until I can’t volunteer to help a neighbor harvest their garden or volunteer myself and my truck to help the local race track replace their damaged guard rails?

    • Exactly my point truck, but with much more thought and details.😀 This is what it will come to if they get to put their already overreaching hands into EVERYTHING a business does. Altruism goes right out the window if the Left has it’s way. A society where the only “help” you can legally get comes from the government which is really no help at all, just financial slavery.


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