Since Seattle’s groundbreaking minimum-wage ordinance took effect last April, city officials have launched 62 investigations into employers, settling violations in eight cases and ordering remedies in four others.
The cases have resulted in the city’s assessing employers about $15,000 in back wages for underpaid workers, according to numbers that officials are scheduled to present Tuesday to the City Council’s civil-rights committee.
The employers include a marijuana store, a strip club, Thai and Korean restaurants and a sandwich-shop chain. Some have violated more than one ordinance.
Dylan Orr, named by Mayor Ed Murray last May to head the city’s new Office of Labor Standards (OLS), said the data show he and his colleagues are working hard.
As of last month, they had 112 open investigations across the four ordinances they enforce: 48 for minimum wage, nine for wage theft, seven for fair-chance employment for people with criminal records and 48 for paid sick time. The ordinances are all less than 4 years old.
“We’ve been very busy, which is good because it means workers are trusting us enough to come forward with complaints,” Orr said. “We’re moving and grooving.”
Orr supervises three investigators, a lead investigator, a policy analyst, a community liaison, a business liaison and a paralegal. He said he plans to hire two more investigators in order to cope with the mounting case load.
Seattle made waves in 2014 when it became the first major U.S. city to set its minimum wage on a path toward $15 an hour. Large employers must increase their minimum wage gradually — to $15 an hour by 2018. Small employers have until 2021.
When the OLS receives a complaint, Orr said he launches a companywide investigation. His goal is to reach settlements in most cases.
In a settlement, an employer admits to one or more violations and agrees to pay the worker or workers involved, take part in training and submit to one or two years of compliance reviews.
“We want to work with employers,” Orr said. “The settlement process is something we try to use with every case because it helps us resolve cases more quickly. Employers get in compliance more quickly, and workers get their money more quickly.”
If no settlement is reached, the OLS issues an order for the employer to remedy the violation or face legal action.
Minimum-wage investigations are taking an average 149 days to resolve, and more than 100 workers have received or are due money as a result of resolved cases. Orr said the OLS has received complaints about employers in several industries.
The largest chunk of back wages ordered under the minimum-wage ordinance involves Butler & Hosch, a national law firm that collapsed last year. The company owes 40 former workers $140,447 in wages it never paid them.
Grass, a North Seattle pot shop, has been ordered to pay $371 back wages to a single employee, while Pandora’s Adult Cabaret on Lake City Way Northeast has agreed to a settlement including $3,223 in back wages and the Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop has agreed to a settlement including $1,928.
The OLS in September selected 10 community organizations and partnerships to receive $1 million in funding for outreach to workers about the four ordinances.
Cariño Barragán, an organizer with Casa Latina, said her group is using some of its funding to train other groups to take complaints and educate workers.
The Spanish-speaking immigrants whom Casa Latina caters to tend to encounter problems with employers while working in restaurant and janitorial jobs, Barragán said.
One group Casa Latina is training is the Eritrean Association in Seattle. Yohannes Sium, vice president of the association’s board, said city funding has allowed it to hire an outreach specialist who speaks Tigrinya, a language native to Eritrea.
Sium said the specialist has translated OLS fliers and has given presentations at community gatherings. He said he believes educating Eritrean workers in their native language and among other members of their community will yield results.
“Most are working at or near the minimum wage but don’t feel comfortable going to a downtown office or making a formal complaint,” he said. “They worry somebody won’t understand them. They usually bring their problems to community leaders and friends.”
Sium said many Eritreans in Seattle are working in restaurants and hotels or as janitors, for-hire drivers or nursing assistants.
Nicole Vallestero Keenan, who heads another funding recipient, the Fair Work Center, said her organization has reached more than 1,000 people in three months.
“There’s a lot to these laws that people just don’t realize until they have the opportunity to sit down with someone,” she said.
Vallestero Keenan said the OLS needs more investigators in order to complete investigations faster, and more time to resolve cases involving a lot of workers.
She said paid-sick-time violations are the most common labor-standards violations she’s come across. The OLS started 82 paid-sick-time investigations in 2015.
The City Council last month passed an ordinance that Murray said would strengthen Seattle’s labor standards. The ordinance, which took effect Jan. 16, allows the OLS to recover from employers three times the money that workers are owed, rather than merely making them whole, and it increases the penalties for employers who fail to comply.
The ordinance also gives workers the standing to sue their employers over alleged violations of Seattle’s labor standards rather than asking the city to enforce them, and it protects workers who file complaints from employer retaliation.
The OLS received 1,564 inquires from employers and 603 from workers in 2015.
Seattle made wage theft a crime under city law in 2011. But more than three years later, the police department and city attorney’s office had yet to prosecute anyone.
That’s partly because the standard of proof for criminal cases is higher than for civil cases. Last April, the city began investigating wage theft as a civil matter, as well.
The OLS had levied $7,600 in penalties for minimum-wage violations, as of December. It limited the penalties to egregious violations.
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