April 30, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 18

News

Licata pushes for new city department to enforce growing number of Seattle employment laws

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

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In 2012, the Seattle City Council passed a law requiring businesses to provide employees with paid sick leave. In 2013, the city council passed a law banning businesses from prescreening employees based on their criminal histories.

Now it’s 2014, and Seattle is considering a municipal $15-an-hour minimum wage.

The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries — which handles labor complaints for the state — can investigate wage complaints, but has no jurisdiction to enforce paid sick leave. City Councilmember Nick Licata said Seattle should enforce the labor laws the city creates.

At a press conference April 16, Licata outlined his hope for a city office that would add investigators to handle labor complaints and educators to help employers comply with the city’s labor laws.

Licata’s proposal is modeled after San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, which audits businesses, imposes fines and educates employees and employers on labor laws.

“It is, from what I can tell, the only real functional model out there on a municipal level,” Licata said in an interview with Real Change.

Licata’s announcement comes as an advisory panel begins to research how the city should enforce its new —  and future —  labor laws. The Seattle City Council budgeted $250,000 in 2013 to hire an advisor to lead the group and come up with a plan by September, in time to include funding in the 2015 budget negotiations.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors established its Office of Labor Standards Enforcement in 2001 for a single purpose: To enforce a minimum wage for construction workers doing city work. In the beginning it consisted of one manager and two investigators.

“We didn’t even know how to order paper clips,” said Donna Levitt, division director of the office.

Today, the office, with 18 staff members, enforces 10 labor laws, including a city-based minimum wage, paid sick leave and a ban on screening out job applicants because of their criminal history.

“Enforcement is not always considered at the time that labor laws are passed,” Levitt said. “And having an effective local agency to do enforcement is critical to the success of the best intended laws.”

Several city departments currently enforce Seattle’s employment laws: The Office of Civil Rights enforces paid sick leave, the criminal screening ban and employment discrimination laws; the Seattle Police Department investigates wage theft; and the Department of Finance and Administrative Services oversees wage rules for city contractors.

Licata said Seattle has good investigators who’ve done an excellent job implementing and overseeing the new paid sick leave law, but his proposal would give them more investigative and enforcement power and would adopt San Francisco’s practice of keeping complainants anonymous.

Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights tries to resolve paid sick leave and job screening complaints anonymously. If that doesn’t work, the employee may have to file a formal complaint and reveal their identity.

The San Francisco office uses anonymous complaints to start an investigation of the entire business. The investigators can audit payroll records to determine if more people were also denied a minimum wage.

“It’s seldom that we have a minimum wage case that only affects one person,” Levitt said.

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