It's been more than two months since Seattle's minimum wage bumped up to $11 an hour, the first step in a staggered series of increases that will have every employee in the city making at least $15 by 2021.
And on June 22—which will be nearly three months since the city's minimum wage started rising—the new city department that's supposed to make sure workers actually get paid these new higher wages will finally get a leader: Dylan Orr, a 35-year-old former policy adviser in the US Labor Department's Office of Disability Employment Policy. (He was appointed to that post by President Barack Obama in 2009.) At the Labor Department, Orr worked first as assistant to the assistant secretary of labor, then as chief of staff in the department's Office of Disability Employment Policy. He was also the first openly transgender person appointed by any US president.
Mayor Ed Murray announced on May 29 that he'd be appointing Orr—he doesn't need city council approval for this pick—to lead Seattle's new Office of Labor Standards (OLS), which is tasked with enforcing not only the minimum wage, but also paid sick and safe time and laws against wage theft.
It was a big get for Murray, but the process that got Orr the job has left confusion, frustration, and a potentially strained relationship between Murray and the labor community.
Here's what went down: In April, after struggling to find interested candidates and advertising the job on Craigslist (among other places), a job-recruiting firm hired by the city passed along about 10 finalists to a dozen-member committee made up of labor, business, and nonprofit representatives tasked with narrowing down the pool. The group recommended four people they thought the mayor should hire. Then Murray appointed Orr, who hadn't been on the list of finalists.
Initially, the mayor's spokesperson, Viet Shelton, described this as a fluke of timing. Orr had applied for a different job in the city, Shelton told The Stranger, and the mayor had picked him for the OLS director's spot instead because of his "outstanding résumé and professional experience." But in an interview after his hiring had been announced, Orr said he did in fact apply for the OLS director job initially.
"That was the job I applied for," Orr said. "I recognize I wasn't one of the folks [selected by the search committee]."
Members of the committee say they had broad consensus among labor, business, and nonprofit representatives on the finalists they chose.
"I'm still waiting to hear why the candidates we forwarded weren't good enough for the job," said Sarah Cherin, political and public policy director at UFCW 21 and a member of the committee, "when we felt we had very good candidates with experience enforcing wage-an-hour laws, which is what that office is tasked with."
Orr's Labor Department work was mostly around policy, not enforcement, although he said he "worked hand in hand" with enforcement staff in the department.
Business representatives, meanwhile, are at ease with the mayor's move.
"I know there has been some concern that we may have wasted some time, but that happens in the hiring process," said David Watkins, past president of the Seattle Hotel Association, who was on the search committee. "It happens all the time. That's expected."
In planning for his new job, Orr emphasizes finding a balance between labor and business interests and educating both businesses and employees. That will indeed be important if, for example, businesses push for complaint-based enforcement of the minimum wage, in which they're only investigated for not following the law if someone complains about them, while labor pushes for something more proactive. But exactly how Orr will bring about his desired labor-business balance remains vague.
"My vision is to put the Office of Labor Standards on the map," Orr said, "both for workers and advocates and also for labor and business. I don't really see those interests as being oppositional."
There's more at stake in the way the mayor went about this than hurt feelings. The Office of Labor Standards is unprecedented in Seattle and tasked with enforcing some of the most crucial labor laws in the city. Yet it's rolling out at a glacial pace, creating skepticism about how effective it will be. This controversy over Orr is just one more reason for concern.
"He seems like a genuinely nice guy," one labor source close to the process said about Orr, "but he's been put in an impossible position now. The constituencies he will need to do his work have very little faith in the process that got him there, and the larger [Office for Civil Rights, which houses the Office of Labor Standards] is viewed widely as having no credibility on enforcement."
Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council and a member of the committee, told The Stranger the mayor's hiring "corrupts the whole public engagement process." But now Freiboth is ready to move forward and continue to work with the mayor—if more cautiously. "This is the administration that gave us the first real minimum-wage increase in the country," Freiboth said, "so fundamentally we're going to maintain a good working relationship."