It's no secret that working for a nonprofit arts organization means working overtime, whether writing last-minute grants or hammering out rental contracts with film distributors in another time zone. But Northwest Film Forum, a prominent local film arts organization, did not pay its program director Jaime Keeling overtime wages—something allowable under federal guidelines if the employer meets a federally mandated minimum salary. Unfortunately, Northwest Film Forum didn't pay Keeling that minimum salary—for almost 16 months. (Keeling, who was responsible for hundreds of exclusive film bookings at Northwest Film Forum each year, left in December for unrelated reasons. Adam Sekuler will take over this key position in the local arts scene on February 20. And it looks like his financial situation could be the same.)

In August 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor released new regulations updating and tightening the definitions of the exemptions related to overtime pay. One of the changes was a sorely needed salary bump. According to Donna Hart, a Department of Labor division director in Seattle, if an employer wants to avoid the hefty time-and-a-half wages the government mandates for overtime work, it must pay a salary of at least $455 per week. Washington State overtime exemption regulations, which continue to permit a meager salary of $250 per week, haven't been updated to meet the much-higher federal standard, but according to Labor and Industries spokesperson Elaine Fischer, "The standard that's the most protective of the employee applies." That would be the $455.

Jaime Keeling, who booked films such as an exclusive engagement of Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique last winter and exerted enormous influence on Seattle's burgeoning film scene, was given a raise in October 2005 to $22,250 per year, or approximately $427.88 per week—a rate that would not have qualified her for an exemption from overtime pay. And Keeling says that before October her salary was a mere $18,000. Michael Seiwerath, executive director and board member of Northwest Film Forum, estimated that Film Forum employees regularly work 50 hours per week (which translates to 10 overtime hours above the standard 40-hour workweek). He subsequently amended his estimate: "Like nearly any salaried position, there are weeks a person works more than [40 hours], and less than this—and we have paid vacations." Keeling estimated that she worked between 50 and 60 hours a week. If either Seiwerath's initial 50-hour figure or Keeling's 60-hour figure is true, Keeling and any other employee paid at her salary or below may be legally entitled to up to 16 months of back overtime wages. The organization has about six salaried employees.

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According to Seiwerath, "To the best of our knowledge, Northwest Film Forum is in compliance with federal labor laws. We have put in a call to the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor to clarify the matter. If it turns out NWFF is out of compliance, we will rectify the situation." Managing director Susie Purves added that the Department of Labor "doesn't send out a notice when they change rules."

Clearly, Northwest Film Forum has transformed over the last five years from a grassroots effort primarily operated by volunteers into a professional organization and mainstay of Seattle's arts scene. Its growth has been swift and exciting, thanks to exclusive theatrical and repertory programming, gutsy filmmaker grants, and a beautiful new home in a two-screen cinematheque. One hopes that as Northwest Film Forum continues its trajectory—new program director Sekuler is the Film Forum's first hire to be found in a national search—it will abide by federal standards. Sekuler, who arrives this month, was slated to start at Keeling's $22,250 salary.

annie@thestranger.com

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