• City of Seattle
  • After overcoming intense opposition from local businesses, former Mayor Mike McGinn signed Seattle's paid sick leave ordinance into law in September 2011.

We know several things about paid sick leave in Seattle. We know:

(a) A lot of local businesses opposed the idea of mandating that employers pay for their employees to take sick days, and many predicted there would be major business and job losses as a result;

(b) That didn't happen, according to two studies;

(c) But the ordinance will have limited effect unless it's properly enforced.

A new report by the city auditor investigates the issue of enforcement, and specifically efforts by Seattle's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) during 2013. What they found isn't pretty. In short, Seattle's paid sick leave enforcement is incomplete, isn't based on solid evidence, and often doesn't hold employers to account or make sure employees aren't being denied paid sick leave after they've complained. Here's the full report (PDF).

When someone complains to OCR that their workplace is acting illegally by denying them paid sick leave the office usually attempts to resolve the complaints with "non-adversarial advisory letters," rather than with fines, according to the report. What this means, the auditors found, is that "resolving" a complaint doesn't actually ensure compliance with the paid sick leave law. Instead, these so-called resolutions are geared toward encouraging employers to do better in the future—not holding them accountable for violations or ensuring that employees receive back pay.

The auditors note that San Francisco has "largely abandoned" the use of these non-adversarial advisory letters. (Man, don't you wish you got one of those whenever you broke the law?) Instead, officials there focus on conducting investigations that result in recovered back wages, penalties, and civil fines.

Seattle's OCR concluded that seventy percent of businesses revised their paid sick leave policies because of their enforcement actions. But auditors found that OCR didn't force businesses to provide any evidence of such revisions:

Because SOCR did not require that businesses submit evidence of compliance in the advisory letter process we were unable to confirm that 70 percent of the businesses revised their policies. In our review of 32 cases we found 22 out of 32 cases lacked documentary evidence from the employer to prove compliance. We also found one instance in which the advisory letter case was closed because the complainant was unable to provide evidence of how much time paid sick leave he requested, rather than placing the burden of proof of compliance on the business by asking them to submit evidence of compliance.

You know who deserves your outrage for this? Elected leaders. OCR said the current enforcement approach is due in large part to "the political context and climate during the debate" over the ordinance, and to extremely limited staffing—just one full-time analyst for paid sick leave enforcement, and a half-time officer working on outreach. "Consequently, SOCR intentionally did not pursue employer fines and back pay for employees because the ordinance was new," the auditors wrote in a summary, "and they believed this was the direction they received from policy makers on enforcement."

OCR agreed with virtually all of the auditor's recommendations on how to fix this sorry state of affairs. (Which basically boiled down to: be more aggressive, à la San Francisco.)

There are lessons here that we can apply to the city's widely-heralded $15 minimum wage law. As Council Member Nick Licata, a leader on both measures, has said, enforcement is just as important as the law itself. The newly-proposed Office of Labor Standards includes seven employees, as Anna reported last month. But Mayor Ed Murray, who raked in the accolades for the wage bump last month in Washington D.C., "demurred" when he was asked about proactive enforcement. Instead, he emphasized that the office would initially focus heavily on "education."

If paid sick leave is any guide, his remarks suggest that the city won't bother—at least not at first—making sure that minimum wage workers get paid what they're owed. The auditors are scheduled to present their report to the City Council at 9:30 a.m. on Monday.