A demonstration in favor of the $15 minimum wage adopted in Seattle. Credit: John Stang
Mayor Ed Murray’s office introduced a massive ordinance from the Office of Labor Standards on Thursday, aimed at strengthening and “harmonizing” Seattle’s unique suite of labor laws, including paid sick leave, wage theft and, most famously, the path to a $15 minimum wage.
The new and modified laws, stretching over nearly 200 pages, emphasize increasing remedies for workers (what workers receive as compensation when they are the victim of a labor violation), stronger punishments for violating businesses, better and more anonymous avenues for workers to report violations, and, most significantly, the right for employees to privately sue employers without going through the city.
That last one perhaps requires the most explanation.
The ability to bring a lawsuit against your employer, known as private right of action, is not guaranteed. When a law like the $15 dollar minimum wage is drafted, those involved must choose whether or not to codify the right for a complainant to bring a suit privately. In Seattle’s labor laws, that right was left off the table. As a result, complaints of wage theft, employer retaliation or most other Seattle labor laws must go through the city’s system, which as of last Spring is the Office of Labor Standards.
Charlotte Garden is an Associate Professor of Law with Seattle University, specializing in labor and employment law. When asked why private right of action is sometimes guaranteed and sometimes not, Garden said, “I think the answer is it was part of a legislative compromise.” By way of example, she said, “Employers were more likely to embrace the new minimum wage” without the right for private action.
According to the head of the Office of Labor Standards, Dylan Orr, “Private right of action gives an additional avenue of recourse” for workers who feel like they are the victim of a violation of labor laws. For now, the only avenue is to file a complaint with the city. SU’s Garden says that the private right of action “is helpful because the city only goes so far.”
“There are only so many lawyers and investigators in that office,” Garden notes.
Indeed, while Orr says he is proud of the work the Office of Labor Standards is doing, the feeling is that, after getting off to a slow start earlier this year, the office is slammed with cases. “We’re very, very busy,” says Orr. “All of us.” Orr says they deal with up to 100 cases at a time and the office will get 30-40 calls a week from businesses confused by Seattle’s unique laws. “Sometimes they’re on the phone for five minutes,” say Orr. “And sometime it’s two hours.”
Additionally, says Garden, private right of action “provides employers a more robust incentive to comply with the law.” So not only do employees have more methods to complain, the theory is that the right to sue is a deterrent to offenses.
The argument often made by the business community is that private right of action results in an excessive number of lawsuits and unintended consequences. In reaction to today’s news, Maud Daudon, CEO of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, hinted at these concerns, while sustaining an optimistic tone. “The Seattle Metro Chamber and our members have been engaged on this legislation for months,” she said, “and we’ve made great strides on ensuring that these changes are more workable for employers and unintended consequences are minimized. As the proposal goes through the legislative process, we encourage the Council to respect the negotiations that took place among all stakeholders to get to this point.”
While the private right of action may be the most prominent part of the package of proposals, for Orr, “It’s all pretty significant.” Under the proposals, backpay and damages paid out to employees would see a boost of up to three times the original amount owed. Retaliation against employees for complaining would be met with up to $1,000 in fines. Penalties for labor violations would be scaled up from $500 on the first offense up to, eventually, $20,000 per violation. OLS will step up proactive investigations. In general, reporting violations will be easier and more anonymous. The city has published a summary of everything that would change here.
When Seattle’s minimum wage saw its first bump, OLS hadn’t yet found a director. In fact, the city was advertising the job on Craigslist. For the first two years of the city’s wage theft law, the city attorney had prosecuted no cases. A recent UW study found nearly 40 percent of businesses were not offering the required paid sick and safe time.
In other words, the city the loves to celebrate its laws, but may not have started out with the best record of following through on enforcement. Now, as the ordinance makes its way through the Seattle City Council, Murray and OLS are hoping they to fix that without making the business community too angry.
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