During the 2015 national minimum wage march.
During the 2015 national minimum wage march. City of Seattle

Seattle's Office of Labor Standards will soon begin an important new type of labor law investigation.

"Directed investigations" is the incredibly unsexy term for a type of labor law enforcement that can have hugely important effects.

While other OLS cases are complaint-based, directed investigations can be launched without a complaint. Instead of waiting for a worker to report being underpaid or not given sick time, the city can identify and investigate industries that employ workers who may be vulnerable to crimes like wage theft and unlikely to report violations.

Ideally, the investigations will not only uncover violations in industries where workers may be too afraid to report them but will also deter companies from violating the law in the first place, OLS Director Dylan Orr said in a statement today.

"Our goal is to bridge the gap in industries and workplaces where there is a disproportionate number of vulnerable low-wage workers, where workers are least likely to complain, and where we are most likely to have a systemic impact," Orr said.

In order to select industries to investigate, OLS will consider research into which industries employ large numbers of vulnerable and low-income workers, information from the U.S. Department of Labor and other agencies, and information about national employers that have violated labor laws and operate in Seattle. OLS says it also worked with a labor enforcement expert from Rutgers University.

OLS says industries likely to face investigation include: "construction, food services and drinking places, health care, home health care, hotel and motel, manufacturing, transportation, warehousing, personal and repair services, retail trade, security, building and grounds services, social assistance, education, and childcare." Investigations will seek out violations of minimum wage, wage theft, sick time, and fair chance employment laws. OLS won't proactively investigate for secure scheduling violations until next summer.

The authority to do these investigations comes from a 2015 bill passed by the city council. OLS currently has just ten investigators and investigations can drag on for months.

"There are workers who may be afraid, unable, or unlikely to report potential violations," Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold said in a statement. "Directed investigations create a pathway to change these specific work environments while maximizing resources, all the while leveling the playing field so high road employers who abide by city laws are not disadvantaged in the marketplace by the actions of employers who do not."