Seattles minimum wage isnt worth celebrating if workers arent getting paid what theyre owed.
Seattle's minimum wage isn't worth celebrating if workers aren't getting paid what they're owed. Alex Garland

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On Thursday, I wrote about a whole bunch of changes the city is likely to make to the way it enforces its labor laws. For the TL;DR crowd, the one-sentence version of the 175-page bill is this: the city is likely to get new authorities to investigate and punish employers who rip off their employees, plus those employees who get ripped off are likely to get new protections.

But there's a major footnote to all of this. The city's system of enforcing labor laws is largely complaint-based, which means workers have to know their rights in order to realize those rights are being violated. (That's why advocates have pushed for more education of workers and businesses.) Plus, even if the city gets new authority to do investigations—without waiting for complaints—it needs more investigators to do that and those cost money. The bottom line: If there's no money to make sure businesses are following all of the progressive laws Seattle is so proud of, the laws don't matter much.

That's why a coalition of labor unions and advocates is calling on the city to create a dedicated source of funding for enforcing labor laws, like the minimum wage. And they want that money to come from businesses.

Here's how things work now:

Just like other city departments, the Office of Labor Standards budget is set each year by the mayor and city council in their budget writing process. During that process, the OLS is basically competing with other departments for city money instead of having its own dedicated source of funding.

That's where the unions' plan comes in. Service Employees International Union 775, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, and others are proposing a fee on business that would create a dedicated pot of money just for this purpose.

Specifically, they want the city to charge businesses a penny per hour worked for each of their employees and then put that money toward 1) the Office of Labor Standards and 2) grants for nonprofits educating workers and businesses about the minimum wage and other labor laws. A penny-per-hour fee, paid on top of business license fees, would amount to $20.80 per full time employee per year. According to the unions' plan, it could generate $5 to 6 million a year.

“Wage theft is a serious crime that can happen to any worker and often targets the most vulnerable among us," says the King County Labor Council's Nicole Grant in a statement supporting the plan. "A penny is a small price to pay to make sure that when a person puts in a hard day’s work, they get the pay they are owed."

For now, this is just a proposal, but the city is looking into it. The city council's 2016 budget, which they're likely to approve next week, includes a request for a city study on different ways it could create a dedicated funding source.

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Council President Tim Burgess, one of the council members who pushed for that study, tells The Stranger he's supportive of a steady funding source, but hasn't yet taken a position on where to get the money. The penny-per-hour fee is one possibility. Another is a flat increase on the business license fee. The first would mean large businesses would pay more; the second would affect everyone equally.

Mayor Ed Murray also hasn't taken a position on this, according to his spokesperson, Viet Shelton.

With some of the city's biggest unions staking out their position, this could set up a new fight between business and labor about who should shoulder the costs of the city's progressive labor laws. The study is due back to the city council by April 1.

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