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November 4, 2014 at 4:44 PM

Seattle City Council may add minimum-wage investigators, funding to mayor’s budget

Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess

Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess (Credit: Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (Credit: Jon Lok / The Seattle Times)

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (Photo credit: Jon Lok / The Seattle Times)

Seattle’s much-heralded new minimum wage is scheduled to take effect on April 1, but Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed 2015-2016 budget includes just one additional staff member next year to investigate businesses that may be breaking the city’s labor laws.

That’s not nearly enough, says City Council President Tim Burgess, who’s asking his colleagues this month to support a budget amendment that would hire three additional investigators next year, rather than one in 2015 and two in 2016.

“We have to get people on board with this faster,” Burgess said. “Most employers are going to comply and some will need education. But with some we are going to encounter resistance and we need to communicate to those businesses that we are serious.”

Hiring three investigators next year instead of one would cost the city an extra $150,000, according to council staff. But Burgess, pointing to a recent report by the Office of the City Auditor, says the hires are needed to keep businesses in line.

The audit found that between Sept. 1, 2012 and Dec. 31, 2013, the first 16 months of a new Seattle law requiring businesses to provide paid sick time to employees, the city didn’t routinely investigate worker complaints or penalize businesses.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) instead sent 141 non-adversarial advisory letters to employers, according to the audit. The letters resulted in zero fines.

In response to the audit, OCR Director Patricia Lally attributed the slack approach to a sensitive political climate around the sick-time legislation and to a lack of staff. The OCR had just one investigator assigned to enforce sick-time, Lally noted.

“The city in 2013 took the approach that we’re primarily going to do education and compliance work, which is fine,” Burgess said. “But we learned that you are also going to have some egregious violations, and I want the city to be able to come down on those.”

Sage Wilson, spokesman for Working Washington, an advocacy organization supported by labor unions, echoed Burgess.

“The mayor’s budget proposal is clearly insufficient to make sure that minimum wage and other laws are a reality for workers,” said Wilson. “The lesson we’ve learned from our sick-time and wage-theft laws is that we really need to be aggressive in our outreach and enforcement.”

The OCR has taken a more proactive approach this year, borrowing investigators from other duties to work on sick-time, spokesman Elliot Bronstein said. It has collected $37,369 in sick-time back pay for employees in 2014, compared to just $5,835 last year.

Murray’s $4.8 billion a year budget creates a new Office of Labor Standards (OLS) to handle Seattle’s minimum wage, sick-time and wage-theft laws and other worker protections, building on what the OCR has done.

In 2015, Murray’s budget directs the city to add an OLS director, a community liaison and a part-time business liaison, plus the additional investigator and $100,000 to support outreach as the city moves toward a $15 minimum wage. Two more investigators would be hired in 2016 and another $50,000 would be made available.

With his budget, Murray sought to “strike a balance” between education and enforcement, spokesman Jason Kelly says. But the mayor won’t stand in the way of Burgess’ amendment.

“The mayor appreciates the proposal to increase funding in 2015 for the Office of Labor Standards, one of his budget priorities,” Kelly said. “The additional staff will be helpful.”

In addition to Burgess’ amendment, Councilmember Mike O’Brien is asking his council colleagues to adjust Murray’s budget by allocating $300,000 in 2015 and $700,000 in 2016 to reach workers through community organizations, a significant increase.

Workers cheated by their employers are most likely to bring their complaints to organizations they know and trust, O’Brien says. The city has struggled to prosecute wage-theft cases, he says.

“While we have these great laws on the books, we continue to hear that people are violating them,” said O’Brien. “Simply passing good laws is not enough.”

Burgess and O’Brien will need support from a total of five council members to make the amendments, which could require cuts elsewhere in the budget. The council plans to complete its budget review on Nov. 24.

Comments | Topics: Mike O'Brien, minimum wage, paid sick leave

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