Seattles proposed scheduling law would cover big businesses like Starbucks and Target, but not well-known local restauranteurs like Tom Douglas.
Seattle's proposed scheduling law would cover big businesses like Starbucks and Target, but not well-known local restauranteurs like Tom Douglas. Sorbis/shutterstock

"You guys keep pushing and pushing us out of Seattle," Subway franchise owner Jen England told members of the city council last night. "We're not gonna make it here."

England was one in a string of Subway owners and representatives for companies like Walgreens and Home Depot who were out in force at City Hall last night to oppose a proposal to give workers more control over their schedules. Workers, meanwhile, were split, with some claiming the legislation would hurt their flexibility to change their schedules and others praising the stability it would offer them.

"I know your concern is your bottom line," former Starbucks barista Darrion Sjoquist told business owners, "but my concern is my life." A member of the labor-backed group Working Washington, Sjoquist has been pushing for better scheduling practices at the coffee giant for months. If passed, the scheduling ordinance would require large employers to give workers two weeks' advance notice of schedules, offer existing workers extra hours before hiring new employees, and pay "predictability pay" when workers are asked to work on-call or are called in or dismissed at the last minute.

The two-hour public hearing underscored the business/labor split in the scheduling debate and echoed some parts of the minimum wage fight.

Several Subway franchise owners said they're having trouble making a profit because of the higher wages and argued they should be treated as small businesses. Like the minimum wage law, the scheduling law treats franchisees as large companies. "Subway franchises are SMALL BUSINESS PEOPLE!" read one sign at the hearing.

The bad news for the Subway owners: Courts have heard this argument before and decided that Seattle is not discriminating against franchises.

Workers who testified against the proposal came from big box stores like Walgreens and from a recently formed group called the Full Service Workers Alliance. That group has complained that the law would destroy the flexibility they like in their industry—their ability to work a lot of hours back to back, to pick up shifts for coworkers, and to leave if the restaurant is dead.

"The problem you're trying to solve does not exist in the full-service industry," said Simone Barron, who works at TanakaSan and co-founded the FSWA.

But TanakaSan is one of 19 restaurants owned by Tom Douglas—none of which would be covered by the proposal, which only applies to full-service restaurants with more than 40 locations and 500 employees. David Jones, a Subway owner who was part of stakeholder meetings held while the city was drafting the law, said the 40-restaurant requirement was added late in the process to exempt most locally based full-service restaurants.

In letters to the mayor and city council members, big box stores like Costco and Target call the law "complicated," "one-size-fits-all," and "burdensome." The Washington Retail Association (joined by the Washington Yacht Brokers Association) wants the council to withdraw the legislation.

This is to be expected with a labor law like this, but it's worth dissecting one of their major talking points: "flexibility."

Business representatives complain that this law would penalize them for shift changes, which employees often want and ask for at the last minute, therefore hurting employees' "flexibility."

But that messaging is deceptive. As written, the ordinance would not require predictability pay for any changes an employee volunteers to make to their schedule or any mutually agreed upon shift swaps. Employers also wouldn't have to shell out predictability pay if they used mass communication like text or email to find workers to fill the shifts they need covered (so long as those shifts were already on the schedule, not new shifts).

What this means is that in instances where an employer has to call in a replacement right away and doesn't have time to send texts or emails, they would likely be on the hook for one hour of extra pay (an amount worker advocates say isn't a significant burden). But in cases where workers switch shifts or volunteer to pick up extra hours or fill in for a coworker, they wouldn't.

At its most basic level, the ordinance shifts some control over the schedule from bosses to workers. The specifics are complex, and businesses have concerns about the extra paperwork that will be required. Plus, true enforcement will demand a larger Office of Labor Standards. But arguing that the ordinance makes any and all schedule changes unworkable is an oversimplification designed to make he whole thing sound more nightmarish than it really is.

"We've heard a lot about flexibility and balance from opponents tonight," said Teresa Mosqueda, political director for the Washington State Labor Council, at last night's hearing. "I would encourage them to take a deep look at the legislation because flexibility and balance are what you've ensured."

The city council's next meetings about the ordinance will be September 7 at noon and September 13 at 9:30 a.m.