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Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards



Jake Blumgart has an interesting piece on how Seattle has created its own labor office with more inspectors per capita than the Department of Labor or the state of Washington. Of course, that’s still 7 employees for the entire city, which says a lot more about how poorly staffed and budgeted the DOL is. But still, for a city to take the initiative to work toward meaningful labor enforcement has its positive side:

OLS has a $1.3 million budget and employs seven people to cover a workforce of 500,000: four investigators, an analyst, a community liaison and a director, Dylan Orr, appointed in May. Orr has more than five years of experience in the Obama administration’s Department of Labor. While one inspector for every 125,000 workers may not seem like enough, it’s an improvement on the federal Department of Labor’s capacity in metro Seattle—one investigator for every 171,744 workers—and Washington state’s one investigator for every 157,337 workers.

Still, “we are really focusing on highimpact enforcement,” says Karina Bull, senior policy analyst at OLS. For example, the agency often launches companywide investigations. “We want to make sure that we are using those four investigators as efficiently as possible,” explains Bull. “If we get a complaint from one person in a business with 500 employees, there are likely violations across that entire workforce.”

Currently, OLS has 81 open labor standards cases. The office has so far assessed a total of $213,000 in back pay and $1,350 in penalties from employers.

OLS also expands its reach by enlisting community groups to alert inspectors of workplace abuses. The groups are supported by a community fund, provided by the city, of $700,000 through August 2016. The money is shared by 10 organizations, including the NAACP, Chinese Information and Service Center, Casa Latina, Eritrean Association and the newly created Fair Work Center.

“For some folks there might not be as much trust [in a government agency], especially if they don’t have their papers,” says Nicole Vallestero Keenan, executive director of the Fair Work Center, which began taking cases in July. “We help people … so when they reach the investigators they have their information ready and accessible.”

Workers who approach OLS have the option to remain anonymous in their complaint, and most say yes. Investigators ask workers a comprehensive set of questions to identify any potential violations of Seattle’s labor ordinances. If OLS decides to investigate, the employer is given 10 days to provide payroll records and an employee roster, among other information.

The only downside, and it isn’t really a downside related to Seattle per se, is that we are developing an even more fractured set of labor laws in this nation than we had before, with cities and states developing large inequities over wages and other standards. When Andrew Cuomo announced his support for a higher minimum wage specifically for fast food workers, my internal poison pill alarm was immediately set off because if we start differentiating by industry as well as by city and state, overarching victories for workers are going to become even harder. So while for the workers of Seattle, the OLS is a great thing, I sure wish it was Washington (state or DC) taking the lead here so it would cover more workers.

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