Here's the thing about $15, the revolutionary minimum wage Seattle passed in 2014, setting off a domino effect across the country: If you aren't getting enough hours of work every week, then even at a higher minimum wage, you may still not be able to make ends meet. And if the hours you are getting are so unpredictable that you can't hold down a second job or attend school, you're even more stuck. Welcome to Seattle's next big labor fight.
For months, labor activists, Seattle City Council members, and staff for Mayor Ed Murray have been talking about the idea of "secure scheduling" legislation to give workers more predictability about when they'll work and how much. On August 8, the city released its first public draft of the law, a complex balancing act that creates strict new scheduling requirements but applies only to the city's biggest food and retail businesses, like Starbucks and REI.
If passed, the law would require employers to:
• Provide schedules at least two weeks in advance.
• Give new workers an estimate of how many hours they should expect to work each week.
• Offer extra hours to current employees before hiring new workers.
• Pay workers extra "predictability pay" if their schedules are changed at the last minute or if they're asked to work on call or "clopening" shifts, in which they have fewer than 10 hours to rest between shifts. (The extra pay ranges from an hour of pay for a schedule change to half-time pay for the length of a shift that is canceled or on call.)
Employers would be exempt from the predictability pay any time a worker voluntarily changes their schedule or if the employer tells workers about a need for coverage by e-mail, text, or some other "mass communication." (This is meant to prevent bosses from coercing employees to cover shifts.)
Crystal Thompson, a Domino's worker who took part in a 2013 strike for $15, said she gets her schedule on Sunday night for the week beginning the following day. "It makes it difficult trying to plan your life, trying to make appointments and child care," Thompson says, "so this is really important. We need to get this passed."
But as the fight to get it passed heats up, a familiar narrative is emerging: Labor advocates are on one side hailing the law's ability to improve workers' lives, while business advocates and some workers are on the other side warning about unintended consequences. Also familiar: Misinformation is spreading.
After the proposed law was introduced at the city council meeting, several employees of Tom Douglas restaurants spoke against the legislation, saying they want to maintain their current scheduling practices. But Douglas's restaurants wouldn't be covered under the new law.
As proposed, the secure scheduling law applies only to fast food and retail businesses with more than 500 employees (including franchises) and full-service restaurants with more than 500 employees and more than 40 locations. That means most high-profile local restaurateurs like Douglas won't be included.
The next few weeks will bring fights over the law in city council chambers. David Jones, who owns two Subway stores inside Seattle, says employers shouldn't have to provide predictability pay when an employee calls in sick and the boss has to find a replacement. "That has nothing to do with me being abusive, but now I have to pay higher wages," Jones says. The Washington Restaurant Association has similar concerns and warns that if employers have to pay extra for filling shifts at the last minute, they may just not fill those shifts, leaving other workers to suffer from understaffing. (Supporters of the law point out that bosses can use mass communication and avoid predictability pay. For example, in Jones's hypothetical scenario, he could text all of his employees asking if someone wants to pick up an extra shift, and in doing so avoid paying higher wages to fill a sick employee's shift at the last minute.)
Advocates at the Full Service Workers Alliance, a worker group that organized in response to this law, say the rules should exempt all full-service restaurants, even those with more than 40 locations.
"We've been in hundreds of restaurants, and I can with complete confidence tell you 99 percent of people we've spoken to as we're canvassing had not heard about this," says Simone Barron, who works at TanakaSan and is part of the Full Service Workers Alliance. "For the council to say all of us are on board with this is ludicrous."
But the political momentum on the Seattle City Council seems to be on the side of this law, with most members (and the mayor) expressing support. A vote is expected in September. Then comes an equally daunting task: making sure it's enforced. Seattle's Office of Labor Standards currently has just four investigators, and cases about the minimum wage and other laws can take six months or more to resolve. The mayor has promised to double that department's staffing in this fall's budget, bringing the total number of investigators to nine. But details about how he plans to pay for that expansion won't be released until budget debates this fall.