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Labor Law, Punishment for Violations Could be Strengthened by Big Seattle Bill

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

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In Seattle, a massive bill that would strengthen the city’s labor laws is currently making its way around Mayor Ed Murray’s office. The proposed bill would include stiffer penalties for businesses that break the law, would better compensate workers who are not given sick days, and would allow workers more options to file complaints anonymously.  The bill comes in the aftermath of the city’s 2014 minimum wage hike, which brought resistance from the Chamber of Commerce and restaurant organizations.  

The same parties are now gearing up to fight this latest legislative effort, specifically the “private right to action” provision which would allow employees to take their employers to court over violations of the city’s minimum wage, wage theft, and paid sick leave laws.  

As The Stranger explains, the “private right to action” has been fought for since it was excluded from the city’s minimum wage bill in 2014:

When Seattle passed its history-making minimum-wage law last year, the exclusion of this right was a glaring loophole. According to an October 2014 report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), Seattle was the only city at the time with a minimum-wage law that didn’t offer a private right of action.

Advocates say the right to sue both gives employees another avenue to get their back pay and discourages employers from breaking the law in the first place because of the threat of legal action. “If the goal is to make sure all employers comply with the law,” says Marty Garfinkel, a Seattle labor lawyer, “a private right of action is a critical element.”

The “private right of action” allows employees to take their complaints to court instead of going through the city’s Office of Labor Standards.  As the NELP report noted, the city’s office is understaffed and “the city alone will not have the capacity to police all workplaces.”  If passed, the city’s “private right of action” would differ from a statewide law which forces employees to prove their employer willingly broke the law in order to recoup more than back wages.  This proof has been notoriously burdensome in the past.

Attempting to find a balance between business and labor interests has been difficult for Mayor Murray. His administration has shown a willingness to bend to business groups who think enforcement of the law should take the form of employer education rather than instant punitive damages.  

This focus on “education” cropped up when the minimum wage law came to be. Most businesses are exempt from fines for their first violation. According to The Stranger, sources familiar with the proposed legislation believe the soonest a “private right to action” law could be in effect would be 2017.  

Labor leaders and legislators feel the city is moving to slow in funding these so-called “education efforts.”  The original deadlines for the legislation were April and July. With those in the rearview, a vote by the city council is unlikely until after the November elections.  Council member Mike O’Brien says he has been asked by the Chamber of Commerce to delay the legislation.

“The [mayor’s office] has already had months more than we anticipated,” O’Brien said.  “This will require significant public process, so let’s just get started as soon as possible.”


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