Delivering $15: Community-Centered Wage and Hour Enforcement in Seattle

The City of Seattle made history last June, becoming the first big city in the nation to adopt a $15-per-hour minimum wage. This is a significant victory for the city and for the more than 100,000 low-wage workers in Seattle who are now closer than ever to earning a living wage. It is an impressive step towards reversing the rising income inequality that threatens our economy.

But the work to ensure a $15 minimum wage for all does not stop with the passage of the bill. The next step is to build a robust enforcement system that delivers on the promise of fair wages to all low-wage workers in the city. In September, Seattle made another huge stride in this direction by becoming only the second city in the country to create a city agency dedicated to enforcement of labor standards, and to include in its budget community contracts for outreach and education.

This report, based on data and enforcement models from Washington State and around the country, is intended to present a vision of an efficient, strategic enforcement plan that compensates workers for wage violations and ensures a level playing field and fair competition for businesses that comply with the law. It is intended to supplement, not supplant, the excellent work of the Mayor’s Labor Standards Advisory Group, which developed the outlines of an enforcement strategy, anchored in the new Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE).

Building on this outline and learning from the experience of other jurisdictions and from experts who have studied minimum wage enforcement, Seattle can create a fair, strategic, and realistic enforcement system that ensures that workers are not cheated out of the city’s promise of an increased minimum wage. That system should include at least four parts: (1) a robust worker and employer education program; (2) an efficient and strategic enforcement plan that employs a combination of complaint-driven and agency-directed investigations to restore minimum wages to all affected workers in a company and protect law-abiding businesses; (3) penalties and compensation that meaningfully protect workers from retaliation, deter violations, and enlist the help of the private bar; and (4) strong partnerships that take advantage of the best skills of government and of community organizations.

While Seattle’s DLSE will enforce its Paid Sick and Safe Time, Job Assistance, Wage Theft and Minimum Wage Ordinances, this paper focuses on the Minimum Wage Ordinance as the newest and most complex of the city’s labor standards.

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About the Author

Rebecca Smith

Director of Work Structures, National Employment Law Project