How One City Is Making Sure Bosses Comply With Wage Theft and Paid Sick Leave Laws

by Jake Blumgart

Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, a cornerstone of Seattle’s Pike Place Market, claims (with good reason) that its penne mac and cheese is the finest in America. Dining at Beecher’s is a must. 

Working there may be less advisable. Deric Cole, an Army vet, worked at Beecher’s for seven months, beginning in 2014. He says that turnover was so high that when he quit, he was a senior employee. Shifts varied from day to day, he adds, sometimes starting at 3 a.m. and occasionally lasting up to 15 hours. Cole says that while Beecher’s technically offered overtime, those who managed to accrue it were punished, and employees were even asked to work off the clock. Cole also alleges that Beecher’s ignored Seattle’s 2012 paid sick leave ordinance and refused to grant any paid time off for illness.

Fed up, Cole eventually brought these complaints to a new city agency designed to help in cases like his: the Office of Labor Standards (OLS), one of the first of its kind in the United States. 

Over the past five years, Seattle has implemented sweeping labor laws, instituting paid sick leave, discouraging discrimination against those with prison records, incrementally raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2017 and strengthening wage-theft protections. 

But these new laws can’t enforce themselves. One year after OLS’s creation, people like Cole will be among the first to test Seattle’s experiment. Although San Francisco originated the model over a decade ago, it has been slow to catch on. Seattle’s new endeavor could push other cities to adopt enforcement mechanisms for local labor laws.

Municipal labor laws are a recent phenomenon, too. In the 1990s, the living wage movement began winning ordinances that set wage floors for businesses receiving government contracts. In the early 2000s, cities like Santa Fe and San Francisco began setting their own minimum wages for businesses under their jurisdiction. A wave of municipal paid sick leave laws followed in cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C. 

Seattle joined the trend in 2011 with paid leave and an anti-wage-theft ordinance. In 2013, it passed “ban the box” legislation that restricts the use of criminal records in hiring procedures. In 2014, Mayor Ed Murray instituted the $15 minimum wage after a union backed ballot initiative campaign in nearby SeaTac, aided by the insurgent City Council campaign of socialist Kshama Sawant, pushed the policy to the center of the 2013 elections.

The enforcement of these new laws, however, has been lax. In 2014, Seattle’s auditor investigated the city’s Office of Civil Rights, tasked with enforcing the paid leave law, and found that investigations were defined by a “non-adversarial approach.” In 70 percent of cases reviewed, there was no proof that businesses changed their policies. In 2014, the Seattle Times reported three years after the anti-wage-theft law passed that it had led to no prosecutions. 

That year, Seattle established the Labor Standards Advisory Group, composed of representatives from unions, businesses and community groups. Knowing the $15 minimum wage was soon to pass, group members agreed on the need for a centralized office to enforce new labor standards. OLS was born.

OLS has a $1.3 million budget and employs seven people to cover a workforce of 500,000: four investigators, an analyst, a community liaison and a director, Dylan Orr, appointed in May. Orr has more than five years of experience in the Obama administration’s Department of Labor. While one inspector for every 125,000 workers may not seem like enough, it’s an improvement on the federal Department of Labor’s capacity in metro Seattle—one investigator for every 171,744 workers—and Washington state’s one investigator for every 157,337 workers. 

Still, “we are really focusing on high impact enforcement,” says Karina Bull, senior policy analyst at OLS. For example, the agency often launches companywide investigations. “We want to make sure that we are using those four investigators as efficiently as possible,” explains Bull. “If we get a complaint from one person in a business with 500 employees, there are likely violations across that entire workforce.”

Currently, OLS has 81 open labor standards cases. The office has so far assessed a total of $213,000 in back pay and $1,350 in penalties from employers.

Read the full article from In These Times.