Senate passes measures to get companies off the hook on worker issues

One measure would give special treatment to big companies with their headquarters outside Seattle, allowing them to be exempt from mandatory sick leave that local firms would face. A Republican says one of the measures will help build low-income housing.
Crosscut archive image.
One measure would give special treatment to big companies with their headquarters outside Seattle, allowing them to be exempt from mandatory sick leave that local firms would face. A Republican says one of the measures will help build low-income housing.

The state Senate's majority of Republicans and two Democrats won battles Monday over overtime wages and Seattle's sick leave law.

The majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats used a 25-24 vote to allow employers to avoid penalties  or liabilities if they fail to pay minimum wages or proper overtime. The employers must be able to show they misunderstood the law in good faith.

Also, the Senate passed 29-20 a greatly changed bill -- originally intended -- that would exempt many major employers from a city sick leave law. The exemptions would apply if the company does not have a physical location within the city or an worker spends less than 85 percent of his or her annual working hours in that city. The bill had originally been written to say that no city can establish a mandatory sick leave law, which Seattle recently did.

Meanwhile, minority Democrats failed to stop 26-23 a Republican bill to shrink prevailing wages on some construction projects.

These three bills now head to the House where the only realistic chance the wage and sick leave bills have is in end-of-the-session bill negotiations between the  Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-oriented Senate.


The narrowest vote was on the minimum-wage-leniency bill introduced by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia.

Braun said the bill is not intended to allow employers to avoid paying workers the proper wages. He said employers can get confused by imprecise directions given to them by state labor officials and should not be penalized for receiving confusing or bad advice.

But Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said: "It basically gives employers the ability to decide for themselves when to pay minimum wage or overtime . ... Does that open a door you really don't want to go through?"

Sen. James Hargrove, D- Hoquiam, claimed loose language in the bill would let employers interpret minimum wage and overtime rules however they want and not suffer consequences — "maybe in good faith, maybe because it is convenient," 

"This bill is written to make it easier from the perspective of employers ...  for people not to get paid or not get paid for what they were depending on," said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.

Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, contended Democrats were imagining flaws in the bill that are not there.


With some moderate Democrats crossing the aisle, the Senate approved a modified bill that would allow Seattle to keep its mandatory sick leave law, but would great nullify the law's effect on companies  doing business in Seattle without being physically located in the city. While the bill addressed all Washington cities, it was specifically aimed at Seattle's new mandatory sick leave law.

Monday's debate was local control versus state control with the normal roles reversed. Democrats argued Seattle's sick leave law should remain intact because the state should not interfere in a city's internal legislation. Republicans argued the state's needs supersede those of Seattle on this issue because Seattle's law hurts businesses with headquarters outside of the city's limits.

"What we're hearing on the floor is we're all for local control except for when we're not for local control," said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.  

Holmquist Newbry noted that the bill was significantly changed to allow Seattle to keep much of its law. "I see this as a respectful step toward local control in Seattle," she said.

But Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, replied:  "I actually do believe this bill is about taking away local control, and I don't think this is a respectful way to do it."

The bill's supporters argued that Seattle having a different sick leave law from other parts of the state would create confusion in keeping track of who is allowed how much sick leave. "They would get a bookkeeping, job-killing nightmare," said Sen.Mark Schoesler, R- Ritzville. Supporters also argued that it is unfair for non-Seattle businesses to have employees covered by Seattle's sick leave law because the business owners cannot vote in Seattle.

The bill's opponents have mocked the proposal as "the Burger King exemption" and they argued Monday that Seattle's government is looking after the health and welfare of the people working in it. They also said no proof exists that a mandatory sick leave law kills  jobs.


The prevailing wage bill debate was prompted the experieces of a constituent of sponsor Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. The constituent built a low-income housing project; eleven percent of that project was commercial with the rest being residential. The state-calculated prevailing wages for residential construction are less than those for commercial construction. If a housing project has a commercial facet, commercial prevailing wages are supposed to be paid for the whole project.

The bill allows residential construction prevailing wages to be paid for work on the residential segment of a project. Also residential prevailing wages would be paid for work on site preparation, parking areas, utilities, streets and sidewalks.

"To me, that's just a wage cut,"  said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle.

Padden said, "I think this will help low-income housing in the state."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8