Depending on where you work, come Saturday, March 28, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and other labor activists might enter your workplace, hand you a flyer, and tell you that you deserve a raise. If you don't get a raise, they'll say something like "Call the number on this flyer."
This is what the next phase of the campaign for Seattle's historic $15 minimum wage will look like: making sure that the law the city is so proud to have passed last year actually gets enforced after it begins to take effect on April 1.
"We would have organized actions anyway because we want workers to remember that it was their courage and effort that brought this to fruition," Sawant says, "but the urgency of our efforts is compounded by the lack of urgency we see otherwise."
The lack of urgency she's talking about is coming straight from city hall, where the department established to enforce the new minimum-wage law is barely off the ground, even as the law's rollout looms.
What's happening and when?
Before you can get concerned about the slow start for the city's minimum-wage enforcement effort, it probably helps to be up on all the basics: On April 1, the minimum wage in Seattle will increase from the current $9.47 state rate to either $10 or $11 an hour depending on the size of the business you work for, the health-care plan it offers, and whether you, as a worker, earn tips. This is part of a gradual ramp-up by which all Seattle workers will get to a $15 minimum wage by 2021. Large businesses, including franchises like fast-food restaurants, will start the ramp-up by paying $11 an hour this year. Small businesses can pay a $10-an-hour wage if their employees get good health-care benefits or tips. (Check out the graph below.)
The city says it will spend the first year focused on educating businesses and employees about the new rules. This means there will likely be very little actual discipline—like fines—for businesses the first time they break the law. Instead, employers will get a warning and have to repay the wages plus 12 percent interest. For the first year, the city only plans to fine employers in "egregious" cases, where a business owner lies or withholds information, according to Patricia Lally, head of the city's Office for Civil Rights. Second offenses will get a $500 fine.
But is the city even ready to begin enforcing the new law?
The mayor and city council created the Office of Labor Standards within the Seattle Office for Civil Rights to make sure businesses are following the new law. But whether that office is ready to enforce it remains unclear.
First, the bad news: The office is not fully up and running and won't be by April 1.
It doesn't yet have a director; a national search for that spot was just recently started with a goal set for hiring the director by the end of May. Plus, a big chunk of the Office of Labor Standards' budget—$300,000 this year, $700,000 next year—is set aside for grants to community organizations to do outreach to workers about their rights and what to do if they're not getting the wages they're due. Those are important for all the reasons we already know about why labor-law violations go underreported: Low-wage workers may fear retaliation for complaining, or they might be unsure how to navigate the channels of city government to lodge a complaint even if they want to. Labor advocates say workers should be able to go to people or organizations they trust to learn about the law and report their employers if they're not getting fair wages. But those all-important grants haven't gone out yet. That's not expected to happen until June.
Past problems with lax enforcement
All of this is annoying at best and concerning at worst. The progressive policies the city council and mayor's administration are so proud of passing mean nothing if workers go without their raises or sick days and employers start to think they can get away with it. The city knows this is a real risk because lax enforcement has been a problem before. A 2014 University of Washington study about the city's 2011 law requiring sick and safe leave found that only 61 percent of all employers surveyed—and only 30 percent of those with 250 or more employees—were following the law and offering adequate leave. A report from the city auditor in the same year found that the Office for Civil Rights had mostly only sent toothless advisory letters to those employers who'd violated the new requirements.
"Without this enforcement, this is just going to be words on paper," says city council member Nick Licata, who called for the creation of an Office of Labor Standards last spring. (After that, Mayor Ed Murray included funding to create the office in his budget. The council went even further when it moved two of the employees Murray had budgeted to hire for the office in 2016 forward to 2015.)
A bit of good news
Now some good news: The new Office of Labor Standards has hired its lead investigator to look into claims of underpayment and wage theft. And according to Lally, the Office for Civil Rights director, all nine of her enforcement staff—even those assigned to look into complaints about other labor laws, like the sick and safe time ordinance—are now cross-trained to enforce the minimum-wage law, too.
Throughout April, the Office of Labor Standards will spend $100,000 on bus, radio, and newspaper ads about the rollout and informational postcards to be mailed to business owners to educate them about the minimum-wage increase.
And the waiting time for those community grants, if not ideal, is acceptable to those in the labor community.
Local Service Employees International Union president David Rolf, who cochaired the mayor's task force that hashed out the minimum wage, said that giving out "a million little grants" to groups that lack the organization and competency to help with enforcement would be "the worst thing we could do." He added: "It's better to get the community strategy right than to get it fast."
Lally says during the first year of the sick and safe time ordinance, the office was focused on education, which is why there were so few penalties for employers. Since then, she says, her office has hired more staff and become more "aggressive" in going after employers who aren't following labor laws. While the office will depend mostly on minimum-wage complaints for the first year—they won't do proactive, random checks on businesses to see if they're following the law—they'll start doing those proactive checks sometime next year, Lally says.
Stepping into the void
So who's working on this while the city gets its act together?
"It was a grassroots movement that got this passed, and a grassroots movement can enforce it, too," says Sawant aide Ted Virdone.
Well, yes. Along with Sawant's office and the organization she founded, 15 Now, the workers' rights advocates at Working Washington are offering their number as a hotline for workers who have questions or don't get a raise as required by law (866-385-9509), and Casa Latina has a hotline for Spanish speakers (745-2045). (The Office of Labor Standards' number, by the way, is 684-4500.)
But it's also on the city government to enforce the law it put in place, and it will be worth watching over the next few months to see how much urgency is given to making sure employers are complying.
"The thing that kills programs around here is not outright opposition," says Council Member Licata. "It's negligence."