It's become common knowledge at this point that despite Seattle's reputation for passing strong labor laws, the city frequently has blind spots in actually enforcing them.
During the first two years of the city's law against wage theft, the city attorney's office never used the law to prosecute an employer. A 2014 University of Washington study found that nearly 40 percent of Seattle employers didn't offer employees the required sick and safe time. A more recent report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United confirmed that many employees are unaware that they should be receiving sick time at all. That report also revealed that some restaurant workers are regularly asked to work unpaid overtime, which is illegal.
So it's welcome news today that the city is attempting to strengthen its labor laws by making life harder for employers who rip off their employees and easier for those employees who want to complain about bad bosses.
Mayor Ed Murray has sent to the city council a 175-page bill—yes, seriously—that lays out new fines for employers who violate the city's labor laws, new protections for employees who file complaints, and new authorities for the city office that enforces these laws. The bill includes some compromises with business interests but is, on the whole, good news for workers.
Here's a look at some of the most important elements of the new legislation:
• A private right of action for workers: As I explained back in August, a private right of action gives employees the right to sue their employer over violations of the city's minimum wage, wage theft, and paid sick and safe time laws. The city's much-lauded minimum wage law didn't include this right when it was passed last year, making it an outlier among cities with their own minimum wage laws.
Without this right, employees have to go through an administrative civil process with the city's Office of Labor Standards instead of going through the court system. The OLS can help them get their owed wages, but has limited staff and resources. The right to sue serves two purposes: giving employees another way to seek more help and discouraging employers from breaking the laws in the first place.
So a private right of action is a big deal. Under this new proposed law, if an employee is successful in suing their employer, they could win up to three times the wages they are owed plus legal fees. Word inside city hall earlier this year was that business interests were pushing back against this or asking for it to be delayed until 2017. On that point, the mayor is compromising. In his legislation, the private right of action will take effect in April 2016 for companies with more than 50 employees and in April 2017 for smaller businesses.
In a letter to the city council accompanying the bill, Murray says he's giving extra time to small businesses that "typically lack a formal HR or legal department, so that they are fully aware of their legal obligations before they face the liability created by a private right of action."
• Increased penalties for violating labor laws: There are two types of fines employers who break the city's labor laws have to pay—back wages to the worker and penalties to the city.
Today, the fines employers have to pay the city vary widely. Consider: Violating the city's law against asking job applicants about their criminal history has no penalty for the first violation. Violating the sick time law can lead to a $500 fine on the first offense, but only if it's proven that it was an "willful" violation of the law. Not paying the right minimum wage can lead to possible fines of $500 for the first time, $1,000 for the second violation, and $5,000 for the third. This new law will make all of those penalties the same as those currently in the minimum wage law ($500, $1,000, $5,000 per affected employee).
The law will also increase the other type of fine—the back pay the employer has to give the worker. When the OLS finds a violation of any city wage law, it can require the employer to pay back the worker three times what he or she is owed. On first violation, this is at the discretion of the OLS—they can consider whether it was intentional, whether the business has an HR department, and so on—but on repeat violations, it's mandatory.
• Decreasing those fines if the employer pays up right away: If a boss who's being fined for breaking one of these laws pays its employees what they're owed within 10 days, the director of the OLS has the ability to waive the fines. If they pay within 15 days, the fines can be halved. This doesn't decrease the back wages the employee gets, but can cut down on the fines the employer has to pay to the city. That gives them a reason to pay back the employee quickly.
"The whole thrust of this ordinance is really to get workers the money they're owed as quickly as possible," says OLS Director Dylan Orr.
• Fines for retaliation: If the OLS finds that an employer retaliated against any employee for complaining, the office can fine the employer $1,000 per affected employee. This is big. This whole system of enforcing these laws is almost entirely complaint-based. But if employees are afraid of getting fired for complaining, they won't, which just allows employers to keep behaving badly.
• An ability for workers to complain anonymously: Again, this is meant to encourage workers who aren't being given the proper pay and benefits to complain. Orr says his office already allows workers to opt for anonymity, but this will codify that practice.
• New authorities for the city to proactively investigate businesses: Complaint-based systems are inherently problematic because the most vulnerable employees are also the ones who may be the most afraid of retaliation or unaware of their rights. If this law passes, the OLS will have the ability to do proactive investigations without waiting for a complaint. If data shows, for example, that a certain industry has frequent instances of wage theft, the city can launch an investigation into a company in that industry without waiting for an employee to complain.
• Limits on the city doing business with companies that have violated labor laws: A company that has been ordered by the city to pay back wages or fines and hasn't done so won't be allowed to bid for city contracts. If the company has paid all its fines, but violated the laws two times or more within a five-year period, they can't bid on city contracts for two years.
• The ability to revoke a business license for an employer who isn't cooperating: The OLS can request the city revoke or suspend the business license of an employer who refuses to pay back wages or fines within 30 days. (Similarly, the bill would allow the city to send fines to collections and request liens on uncooperative employers' property or garnishment of their wages.) Again, this is meant to push bad employers to pay up quickly.
• Authority for the OLS to sign off on U-Visa applications: U-visas are set aside for crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement. They're meant to protect undocumented people who may be in danger and encourage them to cooperate with police. This will allow the OLS to help workers who are victims of wage theft or other labor law violations apply for this type of visa.
On the whole, labor advocates say they're happy with the bill.
SEIU 775 President David Rolf says in a statement it is another example of how "Seattle continues to lead the way when it comes to standing with workers."
Sarah Cherin, the policy director for UFCW 21 who has been advocating for better enforcement of the city's labor laws, tells The Stranger the bill is "really a very positive and progressive approach to enforcement."
The Washington Restaurant Association, which fought the city's passage of a $15 minimum wage, was also involved in negotiations over this bill and sent me this statement:
We believe employers who are willfully violating these rules should be held accountable. However, the length of this proposed ordinance demonstrates the complexity of these issues. And, it shows the importance of ensuring employers are educated about what is required of them. Directing additional resources from the City’s general fund on education is the best way to ensure that the focus is on educating employers of the necessary steps instead of penalizing employers trying to do the right thing for mistakes.
Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce CEO Maud Daudon, for her part, sent this statement:
The Seattle Metro Chamber and our members have been engaged on this legislation for months, and we’ve made great strides on ensuring that these changes are more workable for employers and unintended consequences are minimized. As the proposal goes through the legislative process, we encourage the Council to respect the negotiations that took place among all stakeholders to get to this point. Clearly, these complex proposed rule changes show the importance of allocating appropriate resources from the City’s general fund for outreach and education to all parties.
The city council will have the chance to discuss, change, and pass the bill in the coming weeks.