What good is a higher minimum wage if were not doing enough to make sure businesses are paying it?
What good is a higher minimum wage if we're not doing enough to make sure businesses are paying it? City of Seattle

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It's no secret the city's Office of Labor Standards is understaffed and overburdened, making it hard for that office to educate people about Seattle's many worker-friendly labor laws and enforce those laws. But how should the city pay for making that office work better? Labor's answer: Tax business.

Local unions have spent months trying to get a new business tax through city hall. Now, with no guaranteed legislation in sight, they're eyeing this fall's ballot.

This week, the Service Employees International Union 775 began paperwork for a city initiative to charge businesses a penny per hour worked per employee, as first reported by Erica C. Barnett yesterday. The money raised would fund education about labor laws and proactive investigations of businesses that may be breaking those laws.

SEIU 775 Secretary Treasurer Adam Glickman tells The Stranger the unions are still hoping the city council will pass the tax through the legislative process, but they're starting the initiative in case city hall fails to act. "We wanted to be ready in case we needed it," he says.

It won't be the first time worker advocates have used the threat of a ballot measure to push city lawmakers to act and businesses to cooperate.

In 2014, 15 Now activists threatened a minimum wage ballot measure if the city failed to pass a wage increase. It worked. (Later, business was furious to learn the measure, a charter amendment, couldn't have appeared on that year's ballot anyway. As an initiative, this new idea doesn't have the same timing restrictions, according to the city clerk's guide to filing initiatives.) The city is now reviewing SEIU's proposed initiative before proponents can begin trying to gather the 20,600 valid signatures they need to qualify for this fall's ballot.

Business is already poised to fight it. Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President Maud Daudon says in a statement, "We believe the funding for the Office of Labor Standards should come from the general fund and not a head tax." (The practical effect of this is that other programs currently funded would have to be cut.) The chamber is also concerned that most of the money raised by the new tax would go toward worker outreach rather than "educating people who operate businesses and nonprofits." Daudon says 70 percent of inquiries the Office of Labor Standards (OLS) receives come from businesses.

Yet, recent surveys show workers need help too. Of the small group of workers interviewed for the University of Washington's recent report on minimum wage effects, 60 percent knew the minimum wage law had passed but didn't know how it affected their own wages. A 2014 UW report on the city's paid sick and safe leave law showed that about half of the 33 workers surveyed didn't know about the law. Last year, a survey of food service workers by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United showed widespread lack of access to sick time . That survey also found that 20 percent of workers had worked off the clock without pay in the last year and almost 40 percent had worked overtime without being paid legally mandated overtime rates. That amounts to wage theft, which is rampant nationally and hits women and immigrants especially hard.

"We know anecdotally from workers that there are still fast food workers and others who aren't being paid sick leave and who aren't being paid the wages they should be paid," Glickman says.

Even as the city council looks ready to act on other labor issues, the city hall process isn't showing a lot of promise for SEIU's tax idea. Mayor Ed Murray, who last year didn't have a position on using a business tax to fund labor law enforcement, recently told Crosscut he's not considering it. Council Member Tim Burgess, who supported the repeal of the last employee hours tax the city had, wouldn't commit to supporting or opposing the tax last November and still isn't saying. "We’re waiting to see what the executive side proposes on this issue," Burgess aide Nate Van Duzer says in an email.

The voters may be more friendly. Glickman says SEIU is "very confident" the tax could pass. EMC Research has done some polling on the issue, but Glickman provided only two questions from that poll. According to the results Glickman sent, when likely voters were asked about the penny-per-hour tax, 63 percent said they would support it.

This post has been updated.