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Seattle City Auditor: No More Kid Gloves For Violators Of Sick Leave Ordinance

Sean MacEntee
Seattle's auditor said it's time to step up enforcement of an ordinance requiring businesses to offer paid sick leave to workers.

A city department has enforced Seattle’s mandatory sick leave ordinance mainly by sending violators a polite letter. Now the city auditor says it’s time to get tougher.

Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights used a pretty light touch during the first year of requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave for workers. The department would typically respond after a worker complained, sending the employer a “non-adversarial letter.”

“'Hey, we got a complaint about you. Can we give you some information or assistance to take care of that complaint?”' said David Jones, characterizing the city’s approach. “So the emphasis was on compliance rather than punishment.”

Jones concluded that might have made sense for the first year, but now it is time to start holding people accountable.

“What we’re saying in our report is, gee, city decision-makers, you may want to rethink that sort of soft approach now that we’ve been almost two years into the law, and switch to more punitive tools when they make sense,” Jones said.

Jones’ office has made 13 recommendations, such as opening more full-scale investigations, and awarding employees back wages.

The Office of Civil Rights responded by agreeing with almost all of the recommendations. Director Patricia Lally wrote many of them are already being implemented, and said the office’s enforcement posture reflects direction from the mayor and the city council. She also noted that her office was given only one full-time person for enforcement.

Jones said it is important to get this right, as other new ordinances, including the minimum wage and an ordinance criminalizing wage theft, also depend on effective enforcement.

Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata has proposed a new city department to enforce labor laws. He has invited Jones to present his findings to the council on Monday.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.