A minimum wage march in 2015.
A minimum wage march in 2015. City of Seattle

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Seattle workers whose bosses violate labor laws are waiting nearly a year on average for the city to resolve their cases, more than double how long it took when city officials started investigating workers' complaints in 2015.

The Seattle Office of Labor Standards (OLS) investigates complaints about employers accused of underpaying workers, not offering paid sick leave, or violating other local labor laws. The office also supports and trains businesses to comply with city policies. The latest statistics from OLS show that in the first 11 months of 2017, it took the office an average of 334 days to complete an investigation into a potential labor law violation.

That average is up from 206 days in 2016 and 127 days in 2015.* A spokesperson for OLS says the 2017 average was worsened by "a few cases" that began two years earlier. Without those cases, the 2017 average so far is better—273 days or about nine months—but still longer than 2016 and 2015. In the nearly three years the office has been open, it’s taken an average of 208 days, or about seven months, to complete an investigation.

Seattle created the Office of Labor Standards in 2015, after passing paid sick leave and increasing the minimum wage. Since then, the city has created new worker protections like secure scheduling. OLS investigates possible violations of those new laws, too. As the city has passed new laws, the office has grown from 10 to 22 staff, 10 of whom are investigators. In some cases, OLS will investigate an entire company after one worker complaint. OLS has also promised to begin proactive investigations of industries that are likely to violate labor laws.

But for workers living paycheck-to-paycheck, the prospect of filing a complaint that could take nearly a year to resolve can be daunting.

Asked about the lengthening investigation timelines, OLS spokesperson Cynthia Santana did not respond directly. In a statement, Santana said OLS "is a growing team committed to advancing labor standards in our city with a commitment to race and social justice and helping the city’s most vulnerable workers. We work to help the City of Seattle be a leader on wage, labor and workforce practices that enhance equity, address wage gaps, and create a fair and healthy economy for workers, businesses, and residents."

OLS did not provide specifics about which cases worsened the city's average, but at least one recent case took two years to complete. Workers for LSG Sky Chefs, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, first complained to the city in 2015 about the company's failure to pay the right minimum wage. It wasn't until early 2017 that the city finished the case and ordered the company to pay backpay and penalties. (The city later reduced the total amount the company would pay.)

When OLS finally announced it had finished the case, Sarah Warren, staff director for the employees' union, Unite Here Local 8, said it was "hard to imagine it would take almost a full two years to figure out how to get a multinational corporation to follow the law. I will tell you it is incredibly difficult to explain to 50 refugees and immigrants how it could take the city this long to enforce the law."

Among other hangups in the case, OLS said Sky Chefs released payroll records "in a non-alphabetized stack of 14,000 individual pieces of paper, resulting in investigators’ spending 201 hours to calculate individual employees’ wages, shift differentials and overtime payments over a period of four months."

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In the first 11 months of 2017, OLS opened 94 new investigations and has 189 open investigations. Compared to past years, the city is ordering companies to pay more backpay and penalties. The number of employees receiving payments has also increased. In 2017, OLS ordered companies to pay about $472,000, up from $414,000 in 2016. About 1,500 employees were set to receive payments, up from about 780 in 2016.

However, not all businesses pay what they owe. In 2017, OLS collected about 80 percent of what companies owe. In 2016, it was 69 percent. OLS has sent cases with unpaid penalties to the city's legal department but says "many employers" with unpaid orders are no longer in business.

*The 2017 numbers in this story are through November while the 2015 and 2016 numbers are through December. December 2017 data is not yet available.

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