Try again: Minimum wage enforcement job goes begging

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Boosting Washington's minimum wage may have to wait.

April 1 has come and gone and Seattle employees of large companies like Starbucks or McDonald’s should have seen their minimum wages go up to $11 an hour. But, at least for the moment, it's pretty much up to the the employers to deliver: The city says it's having little luck in quickly staffing the new Office of Labor Standards (OLS) – a division of the Office of Civil Rights – to enforce the new wage.

In the days leading up to the wage bump, Crosscut reported that no one had been hired to head the new office, a division of the city's Office of Civil Rights. The Office of Labor Standards was approved in the city’s budget last November. The department, based on San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, was championed by Councilmember Nick Licata. He  eventually convinced Mayor Ed Murray that the city needed an office responsible for enforcement and for  educating the public about labor ordinances within Seattle, most notably the minimum wage and paid sick and safe time ordinances.

Some in Seattle fear that workers will under-report ordinance violations for fear of retaliation from employers. “For [the Seattle OLS] to work,” said Licata in an earlier interview with Crosscut, “it can’t be complaint only.”

In a briefing to City Council members on Monday, Patricia Lally, director of the Office of Civil Rights, said the OLS has only hired one investigator and will likely conduct only complaint-based investigations until 2016. Lally has consistently said that, as the OLS gets settled, the Office of Civil Rights would be capable of enforcing the minimum wage ordinance. “Our law team is very knowledgeable about labor laws,” she told Crosscut.

Still, members of the council have shown skepticism, repeatedly expressing concern about the new office's lack of a director. Last February, Council President Tim Burgess said to Lally, “We approved this position in November. What’s taken so long?” In late March, Councilmember Kshama Sawant called the office’s approach “lackadaisical.”

Monday, Councilmember Bruce Harrell wondered why the office was still behind.

Lally defended her office, pointing to ads recently displayed on buses, an updated website and a fast response time to phone calls coming in to the department. “It’s been a huge effort to get every single thing in place by April 1st,” she said.

As for the director, Lally told the council she wanted to be sure the city had the “perfect candidate.” In a conversation with Crosscut, she also laid out some of the challenges in filling not only the director position, but the whole staff, planned to include seven people.

The position was apparently not posted until March 3, more than three months after the office was approved and a month after Burgess wondered why no director was in place.

Lally said officials went about defining the position and its responsibilities in December, but, come January, they decided they didn’t have a good definition for what was essentially a new kind of position. “We were creating a description that could not be found online,” said Lally. So the office’s next move was to assemble a task force of people, some of whom, like union leader David Rolfes, worked on the original ordinance, to help them better define the qualifications of a director.

It took considerable time to assemble the task force, Lally said. And, by the time the task  force had settled on a good job description, the minimum wage ordinance was less than a month away.

The description they settled on places an emphasis on oversight and outreach. "The Division Director," it reads, "will have the exciting opportunity to shape, in an often contentious climate, a newly created Office of Labor Standards, with the challenge of identifying and implementing best practices in the enforcement of these laws."

Crosscut reported in late March that a representative of a recruiting firm said the position was posted in more than 40 places online, including Craigslist, which surprised Licata and Sawant. Lally showed confidence at the time, saying, “We think we’ll find some great candidates.”

But on Monday, Lally told Crosscut, “We did not receive as many applicants as we’d hoped.” When asked why, she said it is because there are no cities but Seattle and San Francisco that have an Office of Labor Standards, so finding candidates with the necessary skill-set has proven more difficult than anticipated.

And candidates from national and state labor offices? Lally said that perhaps the right language was not used. The position will be re-posted with, according to Lally, “a more targeted focus.”

The Craigslist ad, meanwhile, has been removed. The Prothman company, the recruiting firm hired to find candidates for the OLS’s director, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Further clogging the OLS process was the Office of Civil Rights’ initial decision to allow the director to hire his or her own investigators, with the exception of one. As a result, the office is not only lacking a director, but a full-fledged investigative force. As a reaction to the delay, however, the Office of Civil Rights leadership changed its mind, appointing office member Karina Bull as the interim director and posting investigator positions. Lally said they hoped to have candidates by the end of the week and make the hires by May.

Lally said that of 500-600 phone calls to the OLS with questions regarding the minimum wage, the office has returned all but five. She also said that the website is seeing more traffic, and postcards have been sent to over 50,000 businesses.

The council members commended her office for these accomplishments and Harrell acknowledged the enormity of enforcing the unprecedented wage hike.

That said, council skepticism prevailed Monday: The OLS was asked to provide concrete timelines for staffing the new office and appear before the council to give monthly updates.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.