Ed Murray and Nick Licata make wage-law enforcement officially official.
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  • Ed Murray and Nick Licata make wage-law enforcement officially official.
This is all fairly straightforward, but for anyone who's been following the minimum-wage debate closely, you've been waiting with bated breath for this moment: At a City Hall press conference this morning, Mayor Ed Murray and city council member Nick Licata announced a proposal to create a city Office of Labor Standards to run the enforcement of city labor laws like the new $15 minimum wage.

Currently, business compliance with two of the city's other notable labor ordinances—the paid sick leave ordinance and a law regulating how employers can use background checks in hiring—is enforced through the city's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). OCR is great, but that's not necessarily a great fit (nor are there enough resources there). And the city's wage theft law is technically enforced via complaints to the police department, but it's generous to call that "enforcement," since no one ever gets charged with breaking that law.

Enter a city office designed expressly for the purpose of enforcing these great progressive labor laws that the city is so proud of passing. Mayor Murray calls this a "one-stop shop" for both employers and employees, with a focus heavy on education at the start, while the wage law is still new. Council Member Licata has been pushing for an office like this for a long time now, and he says he's "excited" to see it finally come to the table.

The budget details (nerd alert!): This office will be funded by sweeping the current employee hours that OCR is spending enforcing these laws—that's 1.5 positions—and combining it with 5.5 new positions, for a total of 7 full-time equivalent positions in the Office of Labor Standards. The budget for that comes from the general fund, and will be $511,000 in new dollars in 2015 and $660,000 in 2016. But the existing work is funded at $165,000 a year, so the total will actually be $715,000 in 2015 and $825,000 in 2016, according to mayoral spokesperson Jason Kelly.

They also announced a Labor Standards Commission to guide the work of the office. I'm so sick of city committees and commissions I'll reserve judgement till later, but they did say it will be composed of both employees and employers.

Two other important things:

One is how this enforcement will work. Sure, they say the office will focus on education, that the goal at the start is not punitive, and they just want to work together in harmony with employers and employees. But this is enforcement of a city law. How will they figure out when it's getting broken, since that will happen in private—in people's paychecks, at the tip jar, etc.? And what, exactly, will they do when it is broken? The city's enforcement so far has been pretty lax, hence the creation of this office. Asked about "proactive" enforcement, Murray demurred. But Licata says, "The city must reserve the right to initiate random checks." It won't be a blanket audit of every workplace in the city, but Licata says he'll "make sure" that there will be random proactive audits or investigations of some kind built into the final bill. Otherwise, the city would basically be leaving enforcement up to employees who complain—and the city knows from study and experience that complaint-based enforcement is not good enough.

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Second, how will this office work effectively with communities who are already disadvantaged and marginalized? I mean, hey, if my paycheck came up short this week, I would have a literal Rolodex of people to call about it and the ability to have those conversations easily and be an effective self-advocate. But that's not true for most workers in the city. And many face special difficulties: language barriers, worries over their immigration status, lack of trust in government and bureaucracy for all sorts of reasons, fear of retaliation. Real enforcement of labor laws has to take into account that the people who are most at risk for being mistreated by employers are often people for whom addressing that mistreatment is the most difficult. Licata says it is "my expectation and my intent" that the office will contract with organizations who already work with these communities to do some of the education and enforcement that otherwise might be difficult for a city office. This is a good sign; whether that kind of contracting is actually funded is important to watch.

But overall, this is an important step, and one we've been talking about since before the $15 minimum wage was even a serious policy discussion. It's nice to see the city finally move on it. Licata admitted at the podium this morning that "good legislation often gets passed," but it also often "gets ignored or lost" after passage. There's a step that comes after you pass the law—you have to see if it's getting followed and if it's working.

This move toward robust enforcement of a well-intentioned law, says Licata, "is as critical as passing the law" in the first place.