One of the biggest questions Seattleites should be asking their elected officials this budget cycle is whether the Council will break with business as usual and set aside sufficient funding to enforce paid sick leave, our recently won minimum wage increase, and other laws designed to protect working people.
Over the last six months, Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights (SOCR) has issued several reports which discuss the limitations that SOCR employees have faced while trying to enforce Seattle’s paid sick/safe leave legislation.
Two years in, the Implementation and Early Outcomes of the City of Seattle Paid Sick and Safe Time Ordinance (PDF) is damning:
Almost half of the workers interviewed in the first wave (12 of 28) were unaware of the Ordinance (p. 63).
Half of the workers [who were] interviewed mentioned some level of hesitancy or inability to stay home when sick (p. 70).
Half of the workers we interviewed described fear of retaliation or negative attitudes about sick leave by their employers. And approximately half of the workers who mentioned negative attitudes or retaliation also described some level of hesitancy around taking time off due to illness. It was most common for workers to describe their employers as discouraging taking time off (p. 71).
It gets worse. When violations are reported and confirmed, SOCR issues “non-adversarial advisory letters.” These letters are almost apologetic in their design, effectively saying “you really shouldn’t do do this” to companies on the working assumption that violations of the law are honest mistakes. This assumption is almost never provided to workers when they make honest mistakes; the idea that it should be standard policy for violators undermines enforcement and provides no compelling reason for companies to swiftly adopt and adhere to the law.
On October 20th, the Council was told that SOCR intends to take stronger enforcement steps. The need to do so is quite clear. The City Auditor’s Paid Sick and Safe Time Ordinance Enforcement Audit (PDF) notes that San Francisco, for example, has almost entirely abandoned non-adversarial advisory letters “and now conducts companywide and confidential investigations. These investigations have resulted in settlements that included recovered back wages, penalties and civil fines” (p. 3).
The most important takeaway is that the failure of this city to enforce paid sick leave effectively does not rest on SOCR’s shoulders. As SOCR reports,
decisions regarding enforcement and outreach efforts were made in consideration of several factors including: the political context and climate during the debate, passage and initial implementation of the PSST Ordinance, business and community stakeholders’ input, and staff resource constraints. Consequently, SOCR intentionally did not pursue employer fines and back pay for employees because the ordinance was new and they believed this was the direction they received from policy makers on enforcement (p. 2).
To put it bluntly, “[y]ou know who deserves your outrage for this? Elected leaders.”
Paid sick leave, a $15/hour minimum wage, and other victories are only possible with public pressure and the development of mass movements. Even when legislative victories are secured, the political and business establishment will use all means at its disposal to bypass and dramatically undermine victories. The absence of effective enforcement mechanisms is a terrible precedent, especially when we look at what it could mean for Seattle’s $15/hour minimum wage legislation. The many corporate loopholes introduced at the last minute, including four different phase-in schedules and a temporary tip penalty, will make enforcement especially challenging. This is yet another reason why people need to engage in the budget cycle so we can fight to demand and secure the maximum funding necessary to fully fund enforcement.