On Friday afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the latest turnover in City Hall: Office of Labor Standards Director Dylan Orr is out.
Orr confirmed by email to The Stranger that Durkan asked for his resignation. Orr said he was "incredibly proud of the work I’ve done in the last two and a half years to build the Office of Labor Standards from the ground up... I am honored to have had this opportunity."
Durkan has appointed Martin Garfinkel, a longtime labor lawyer, to replace Orr. The change comes at a time when the office is facing backlogs of worker complaints and potential new workers' rights legislation on the horizon.
Orr was the first-ever director of the office, which Seattle created after passing a phased-in $15 an hour minimum wage in 2014.
Orr, who grew up in Seattle, previously worked as a policy advisor in the federal Labor Department's Office of Disability Employment Policy. He was the first openly trans person appointed by a U.S. president. "Racism, ableism, classism, and sexism compound the discrimination the trans community faces, which is demonstrated in our life outcomes in critical areas like education, employment, and health," Orr wrote in a 2015 essay in the New York Times.
Tension marked the start of Orr's time at OLS. Although former mayor Ed Murray had directed a task force of business and labor representatives to select finalists to head the department, he hired Orr instead. Committee members questioned the process and were skeptical of Orr's experience, which mostly focused on policy, not enforcement. But labor representatives who were frustrated then say they worked well with Orr when he got into office.
"Dylan has done a remarkable job under really challenging circumstances," says Sarah Cherin, the community and political allies director at UFCW 21 who was a member of the committee. "We definitely had a lot of skepticism about the process and about his background. We’ve been pleasantly surprised." (Cherin's union, UFCW 21, endorsed Durkan's opponent Cary Moon in last fall's election.)
Cariño Barragán, program manager for Casa Latina’s worker rights enforcement program, said Orr "understood the importance that community groups need to be part of the solution" to issues like wage theft. OLS provides grants to Casa Latina and other groups. "The community trusts us to help them," Barragán said. "They come to us first."
In OLS's two and a half year existence, the office has hired more investigators and begun enforcing new laws. In addition to minimum wage and sick time, the office now oversees secure scheduling, safety protections for hotel workers, and other rules. To celebration from worker advocates, the office announced in November it will begin directed investigations. In those investigations, city officials will proactively look into industries that may be violating worker rights instead of waiting for worker complaints.
However, the office continues to struggle with drawn out investigations that can leave workers waiting months for back pay. One case involving workers for a subsidiary of the airline Lufthansa took nearly two years to resolve. Even after the city found the company had underpaid workers, OLS reduced the penalties for the company and signed a confidentiality agreement preventing either side from discussing the deal.
Labor advocates have had an eye on the job of OLS director since Durkan's election, as she has kept some department directors from the Murray era and replaced others. Durkan won election with the support of some prominent labor unions, but also with significant backing from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. If the Chamber was hoping Durkan would oust Orr, though, there's little sign so far they're getting an ally in his replacement.
Garfinkel works at the high profile Seattle firm Schroeter Goldmark and Bender, which has more than a dozen pending class action lawsuits involving pay, sick time, and other worker rights. (Durkan worked at the same firm in the 1990s. Seattle City Council member Lorena González worked there until 2014.) At that firm and others dating back to the 1980s, Garfinkel has represented employees and unions, according to his online bio.
Barragán from Casa Latina and Cherin from UFCW 21 both said Garfinkel is well respected among labor advocates. David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, called Garfinkel a "top drawer pick."
"I really believe his commitment to worker justice is very strong," Rolf said. (Rolf's union, SEIU 775, endorsed Durkan during the mayoral race last year.)
Chamber CEO Maud Daudon said the organization hopes a new OLS director will include more business input. “We’re hopeful that a change in leadership at the Office of Labor Standards will refocus its commitment to education and outreach as a significant part of the City’s strategy to achieve compliance on labor laws,” Daudon said.
In coming years, a major test of the Office of Labor Standards will be whether it follows through on its promise to pursue proactive investigations. The office will almost certainly take on more laws to enforce as city council members discuss protections for domestic workers and new gender pay equity policies. The office will have to enforce that growing list of laws without backlogs so long workers don't bother filing complaints.
Among Schroeter Goldmark and Bender's ongoing cases is a lawsuit against the taxi company Eastside for Hire that alleges the company charges airport taxi drivers fees for trips they don't take. The firm is also suing the King County Department of Transportation for allegedly not providing bus drivers required meal breaks and several restaurants for allegedly not paying workers at the airport the SeaTac minimum wage.
In 2014, Garfinkel represented rental car employees at SeaTac who said they weren't being paid the city's new minimum wage. The firm says the parties in that case have reached a settlement that could be approved this month. In a case settled in 2012, Garfinkel represented workers for a local construction company building bridge pieces for an elevated Sound Transit line. The workers argued they should be paid as much as other workers on a site in Tukwila. The settlement totaled $3.7 million for 328 workers. Garfinkel also worked on a case involving state workers that was settled in 2006. In that case, public employees challenged the fact that they were paid less if they worked for certain state agencies than if they worked for state colleges in Washington. In the end, the state agreed to pay $30 million to 9,000 workers.
Garfinkel was not available for an interview for this story. In a video from 2015, he said he was influenced as a teenager by the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. "I was a person that was concerned about justice—social justice, economic justice, racial justice. And so I became a lawyer working for workers in order to help achieve some of those goals."
Garfinkel will make $157,911, according to Durkan's office. He starts at OLS on February 1.