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Enforcing $15 wage: Job unfilled a week before law goes into effect

So far, the minimum wage hasn't bumped prices as some feared. Credit: Rick Barry/Flickr

In November, the Seattle City Council looked ahead to the new minimum wage law and approved the creation of an Office of Labor Standards within Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights. The office is generally tasked with ensuring fair working conditions, safety and general labor standards, but its establishment was with a specific eye toward enforcing Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance, set to begin taking effect on April 1.

With less than a week until the minimum wage goes up to $11 an hour at the largest companies, however, the office does not have a director.  And a promised public campaign to spread awareness of the hike is nowhere to be seen.

In fact, despite concern from Seattle council members in early February, the search for a director did not even begin until early March, when, among other places, a recruitment firm posted an ad for the position on Craigslist.

Is Seattle prepared to usher in the historic wage increase? The Office of Civil Rights says it is. Others aren’t sure, and they worry that the city’s readiness will be important.

“Ultimately,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant in a Feb. 9 council briefing, “enforcement [of the minimum wage] is going to decide whether the law is going to be effective or not.”

The OLS, whose creation was suggested to Mayor Ed Murray by Councilmember Nick Licata, will theoretically do just that — give the law “teeth” as The Stranger once put it.

According to Licata, Murray was not immediately sold on the idea, but the mayor eventually agreed on creating the Office of Labor Standards. The council in November approved $511,000 for the OLS as a part of the city’s budget, to be assembled and housed in the already existing Office of Civil Rights.

“We need to be proactive,” said Murray in a September press conference. “Businesses need to know their competitors are also following the rules.”

The requirements themselves can be somewhat complicated. The new law requires companies with more than 500 employees to pay at least $11 an hour immediately. Some smaller companies can pay $10 per hour, but some of them must provide total compensation, such as health benefits, reaching $11 an hour. And there are varying phase-in schedules to reach the full $15 per hour.

Licata got the idea for an OLS from San Francisco, which employs 18 people to enforce various labor laws, including paid sick leave, employer-provided health coverage and San Francisco’s own minimum wage ordinance. In Seattle, the Office of Civil Rights has carried out labor law oversight, but in combination with overseeing housing and disability laws, Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative and more.

Seattle’s OLS will eventually employ seven people. If employers are found not to have provided full compensation under the new minimum wage ordinance, the OLS will issue a warning and possibly a $500 fine. The fines increase with each violation, topping out at $20,000 per employee.

Patricia Lally, director of the Office of Civil Rights, told Crosscut in an interview that she was not concerned about enforcement, and she is confident that the Office of Civil Rights can provide the necessary oversight in the meantime until the full OLS staff can be hired. “Even before minimum wage,” she said, “the Office of Civil Rights has been doing paid sick leave. Members of that enforcement team are dually trained [for minimum wage].”

Lally said that come April 1, the OLS will throw its doors open to complaints and employees of the Office of Civil Rights will be ready to start processing, even before the OLS is fully staffed (as of mid-March, the office only employed one investigator).  Proactive investigations, she said, will begin in the coming months.

One concern with a complaint system is that employees might fear retribution from employers or that employees have not been properly informed of their rights. “For this thing to work,” said Licata, “it can’t be complaint only.”

There could be questions, however, about whether OLS has the staffing power to proactively investigate minimum wage violations. In the San Francisco office, it takes six full-time staff just to field and process complaints. According to a representative from their office, the staff does not initiate investigations, but only reacts to complaints. The Seattle office currently has one labor law investigator who, according to Lally, is already working at full capacity.

In the Feb. 9 council briefing, Lally told council members she did not want to hire a full staff without a director because he or she will be a “central figure” and should be the one to fill the OLS team. Council President Tim Burgess wondered why the director position had not been filled. “We approved this position in November,” he said. “What’s taken so long?”

Lally pointed to the establishment of a selection board and the hiring of a recruitment company to find qualified candidates. “We think we’ll find some great candidates,” she said.

But now it’s late March and the OLS has still not found a director. Lally said that there is no delay. “Finding the right talent has taken some time,” she said.

Despite what Lally said, Greg Prothman, owner of the Prothman recruiting firm hired by the Office of Civil Rights to help find a director, said the recruitment process opened only two and a half weeks ago. That’s nearly a month after Council President Burgess wondered why the position wasn’t filled. Included in Prothman’s postings for the position was the Craigslist ad.

Lally said the office is mostly focusing on spreading the word about the new minimum wage requirements to businesses.“The first priority is to make sure there is a strong education focus. We want people to know how to comply.”

She added, “We will be rolling out a pretty vigorous media campaign. Bus campaigns and notices, plus media campaigns. Not just in English, but radio and television in other languages.”

However, a representative from Titan 360, the company responsible for posting advertisements on buses in King County said, there are no advertisements for the minimum wage displayed on any buses. Likewise, few, if any, advertisements have been seen so far in any Seattle media.

“Perhaps,” said Councilmember Licata in an interview with Crosscut last week, “we could have avoided this problem if we waited until June or so to roll out the minimum wage.”

Councilmember Sawant disagreed. “The real issue here,” she said in an interview on Tuesday, “is that after having had many months to work on setting up the Office, the City has not even hired a director to staff it.

“With real people’s living standards at stake, and with so much evidence of systematic flouting of labor law in the city, this lackadaisical approach is hardly confidence-inspiring.”

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