In the nearly nine months that Tacoma’s new paid leave ordinance and minimum wage law have been in place, the city has settled with nine businesses found to be violating those policies.
Three of those settlements netted back pay to workers totaling $1,537.
But most of the nine businesses that settled didn’t owe back wages; they were simply not giving their employees proper notification of their rights or not informing them how much paid leave they’d earned under the new policy.
City staff said their enforcement efforts have helped 1,751 Tacoma workers recover wages or learn about their rights.
“We have been working really hard … on the public education part as well as starting up enforcement,” said Melanie Harding, employment standards program manager for the city. “We have a lot of employers who want to do right by the law. Some of them just don’t have the information that they need to do that 100 percent accurately, so we’re helping to continue to get that out to them.”
The city launched new strategies for educating people in late summer. Harding’s office has seen an increase in worker inquiries since then, with the number more than doubling between August and September. More than 2,100 brochures have been distributed in six languages at child care centers in an effort to inform parents who might be affected by the policy changes.
We have been working really hard … on the public education part as well as starting up enforcement.
Melanie Harding, employment standards program manager
“What we’ve been trying to do is go where working families would already be enjoying their day or looking for information,” Harding said. “We’ve done community events like the … T-Town city expo in August, we were there as part of that. We’ve done the Latin Arts Festival this summer.”
As of Feb. 1, any employee who works more than 80 hours a year in Tacoma is eligible to earn one hour of paid leave for every 40 worked, up to 24 hours of paid leave per year. That leave can be used as sick leave, for doctor appointments, to care for a sick family members, for bereavement time or to stay home with kids in case of school closures, among other uses. The law was passed by the City Council early last year.
Then in November, Tacoma voters approved a minimum wage hike that ramps the wage up to $12 per hour by 2018. This year, the minimum wage in Tacoma is $10.35, 88 cents higher than the state minimum wage, thanks to the law. It will bump up to $11.15 on Jan. 1.
If an employee thinks his or her workplace is violating either policy, they can file a complaint by filling out a short form on the city’s website. An investigator then interviews that person and sends an initial advisory letter to the business if the complaint checks out.
After an interview with the employer, the city offers the business a chance to settle by promising to provide back wages or paid leave, and to post signs notifying workers of their rights. The city checks back later to make sure they’ve done those things, Harding said.
If the business refuses to comply — which none has yet — the city can launch a full investigation and levy fines of $250 per violation.
Among the nine settlement agreements, the biggest was with Tacoma Mall’s Foot Locker, which had to pay $865 in back wages to 29 employees, as well as provide back paid leave time to many staffers. A corporate spokesman for the company did not return a request for comment.
The second biggest offender was the Subway on South 23rd Street near South Cedar Street, which owed $660 in back wages. That franchise has since changed hands, but new owner Irina Tsapkov said the previous owner told her about the settlement.
I know the employees are working for it, and they deserve it, and so we’re paying them — it’s not their problem whether customers are coming in or not.
Irinia Tsapkov, new owner for Subway on South 23rd Street near South Cedar Street
“We just took over the store, and we just had the first paycheck yesterday, and we paid the right amount and all that,” Tsapkov said. The store hasn’t been doing well profit-wise lately, but she’s working to change that and said the new minimum wage will not be an issue. “I know the employees are working for it, and they deserve it, and so we’re paying them — it’s not their problem whether customers are coming in or not.”
Cliff Purnell already pays employees in the auto radiator repair shop he owns “well above” minimum wage. But he was contacted by the city because he wasn’t notifying his workers of the hours of paid leave they had accrued. It surprised him: Purnell already offers paid vacation time to his workers.
“I just didn’t know you had to have posters up. I knew it was coming into effect, and as far as the personal time, I mean you just have to keep track of it,” said Purnell, who owns Northwest Radiator Works. “The only thing that balled me up was the posters.”
Tacoma’s minimum wage could be overtaken if voters approve Initiative 1433 next month. It would gradually lift the wage floor over four years to $13.50 and introduce a new statewide paid-sick-leave policy. If that initiative passes, the state’s minimum wage would surpass the city’s when the $13.50 wage hits in 2020.