Good news for workers: A massive, 100-plus-page bill currently circulating in the mayor's office would strengthen the city's labor laws, including stiffer penalties for lawbreaking businesses, better compensation for workers who aren't paid adequately or given sick days, and more ways for workers to file complaints anonymously.
But perhaps the most controversial piece of the draft legislation is the inclusion of the "private right of action," which would give employees the right to sue their employer over violations of the city's minimum wage, wage theft, and paid sick and safe time laws.
When Seattle passed its history-making minimum-wage law last year, the exclusion of this right was a glaring loophole. According to an October 2014 report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), Seattle was the only city at the time with a minimum-wage law that didn't offer a private right of action.
Advocates say the right to sue both gives employees another avenue to get their back pay and discourages employers from breaking the law in the first place because of the threat of legal action. "If the goal is to make sure all employers comply with the law," says Marty Garfinkel, a Seattle labor lawyer, "a private right of action is a critical element."
Without a private right of action, employees have to go through an administrative civil process. For a fast-food worker in Seattle, that means dealing with the city's understaffed Office of Labor Standards instead of a lawyer and a judge. The NELP report calls on Seattle to add a private right of action because "the city alone will not have the capacity to police all workplaces."
At the state level, minimum-wage workers can sue their employers, but they have to prove their boss willfully broke the law in order to recoup more than just back wages. That's a difficult threshold to meet. The proposed city right of action likely would not include that requirement. Workers would also be eligible to receive up to three times the amount they were not paid, whether or not the lack of payment was intentional.
Not surprisingly, the business community is concerned about this proposal. Neither the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce nor the Washington Restaurant Association, two of the main business groups involved in negotiations over the bill, would comment about specifics. Chamber president Maud Daudon offered only a vague statement, saying the group is "carefully reviewing the proposed changes to the city's approach to ensure both appropriate enforcement as well as sufficient education outreach to help businesses of all sizes successfully follow the law."
Mayoral and council staff and labor leaders say business groups have two main lines of argument: First is the claim that such a change could encourage frivolous lawsuits, and second is that the city should spend more time educating businesses about the new minimum-wage law before applying another hammer of enforcement.
They're winning ground on that second argument. Sources familiar with the negotiations of the bill, which is not yet public, say a private right of action looks unlikely to take effect before 2017.
"We are taking very seriously the critique we've heard that the business community feels like there hasn't been enough outreach," says David Mendoza, the policy adviser to the mayor who's working on the legislation.
While the city has deliberately focused on education in the first year of its new minimum-wage law, exempting most businesses from getting fined the first time they fail to follow the law, Seattle city leaders have also been slow to fund planned education efforts for both workers and businesses.
They've also been slow to push this new bill. Original deadlines were in April and July, and the legislation is now not expected to see a council vote until close to the end of the year—conveniently after the November election.
Council Member Mike O'Brien says the Chamber of Commerce called him in early August, asking him to give business and labor even more time to hash out the details of a private right of action. He says he's not interested. "The [mayor's office] has already had months more than we anticipated," he says he told the business group. "This will require significant public process, so let's just get started as soon as possible."
Mayor Ed Murray's staff, who have been negotiating with business and labor on his behalf, say the next step is getting Murray himself in the room to help hammer out a compromise. But a spokesman for the mayor was unwilling to say whether Murray supports a private right of action himself—in other words, whether he'll fight to keep it in the bill if the business community wants it out.
What happens next will serve as a test of the influence of business on city hall. If the bill arrives at the city council without a private right of action, it'll be a sign that business influence convinced the mayor to rescind his own staff's work. If the bill is weakened by the city council, it'll be a sign that council incumbents—some of whom will have just been reelected with the help of business groups—are willing to prioritize anti-labor interests over worker protections.
"The truth is," wrote UFCW 21 policy director Sarah Cherin in a July 30 e-mail to the mayor, "the primary reason why employers are so opposed to private right of action is simply that this enforcement strategy holds wrongdoers accountable... What are the motives behind passing some of the most important labor standards in the country and then not giving workers the tools to actually hold corporations accountable when they violate the law?"