Seattle’s Labor Laws Let All Workers Know They Matter to this City

While each regulation carries its own nuances that should not be overlooked, as a whole these laws have sent a clear and important message to those on the lowest rungs of our economic ladder: You matter.

Last Friday marked the first anniversary of Seattle’s groundbreaking minimum-wage ordinance going into effect. The past 12 months have seen no shortage of punditry about the graduated wage hike—which currently stands at $13 an hour for large employers who don’t provide medical benefits. It has been celebrated as economic salvation and derided as an economic catastrophe. Restaurants have closed (disaster!) and opened (Sí se puede! ). They have begun to tweak their business models—getting rid of tipping, implementing flat-rate tipping, or, in the recent case of Mollusk, abolishing it then bringing it back. It can be confounding to try to draw any firm conclusions about how the wage law has changed Seattle’s economy.

And any attempt to do so may be premature. On Sunday, two policy analysts with the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance published an op-ed in The Seattle Times that argues, basically, that it is too early to tell what effect the law is having on business and employment in Seattle, and not just because we’re still years away from the eventual $15 minimum wage. The researchers, Emma van Inwegen and Jacob Vigdor, who are working under a grant from the city, write that the nature of business can create lags in how a policy change like a higher minimum wage manifests in the private sector. Keying off the idea that any negative or positive ramifications of the law will appear first in Seattle’s thriving pho market, van Inwegen and Vigdor suggest a rash of pho restaurant closures could yet come. Or, as their larger point holds, not. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Yet while this ongoing debate and research is both healthy and necessary, we should not forget that the minimum-wage law is just one of a slate of new rules Seattle has enacted or considered in recent years—among them stronger protections against wage theft and guaranteed sick leave. While each regulation carries its own nuances that should not be overlooked, as a whole these laws have sent a clear and important message to those on the lowest rungs of our economic ladder: You matter.

That point comes through loud and clear in Sara Bernard’s report in this week’s paper (“Letter of the Law,” page 11), which tells the story of a kitchen worker who was inspired to fight for back pay he was owed after seeing Councilmember Kshama Sawant on television talking about workers’ rights in Seattle. The man, Israel Martinez, was then helped in his quest for just compensation by city grants that provide support for workers fighting wage theft—part of an anti-wage-theft law that also went into effect one year ago on April 1.

The labor laws that Martinez petitioned under—which dictate that employees receive time and a half for working overtime—are nearly as old as the labor movement itself. And yet it wasn’t until a city leader made his rights a talking point that Martinez felt empowered to do something about it. He’s not alone: Bernard reports that Casa Latina, as a recipient of one of the city grants to aid workers, is now able to handle four times as many wage-theft cases as before. That’s the power of talking about it.

And the Council continues to talk about workers’ rights, now in regard to “safe scheduling,” also covered in this issue (“The Next Step,” page 11). As Peter Johnson writes, schedule regulation must be done carefully so as to not impede aspects of shift work that can benefit employees, such as shift-swapping. Yet it is disappointing that the restaurant industry has taken the stand that there is no problem with scheduling, despite plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. It was gratifying to see Councilmember Lorena González dismiss that testimony for what it was, know-nothing obstructionism.

This paper remains convinced that the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray did the right thing in passing the increased wage law in 2014. Since then, California and New York have crafted their own laws to implement $15 an hour in their states, and we are proud to be in a city that has made itself a leader in the cause of economic justice. And as we wait for more data, we are satisfied to know that somewhere a kitchen worker may read this week’s paper and know that, indeed, she or he does matter. E

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