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Labor advocates concerned about Tacoma minimum wage rules

Tacoma is wrapping up its rule-writing for the city’s new minimum wage law, and some labor advocates are concerned that the regulations water down what voters approved.

Those advocates say several issues concern them, including what they describe as lax record-keeping requirements for employers and a fuzzy enforcement process.

“Some details are being added which appear to be adding things to the law that the voters didn’t vote for,” said Vince Kueter, who volunteered with the 15 Now Tacoma campaign in the fall and has analyzed the draft rules.

City officials say that is not what is happening, and emphasize the rules have not been finalized.

“We are having a public process because we do want to hear from the public,” said Melanie Harding, the city’s employment services program manager. “It’s our intent to draft rules to help us implement the ordinance.”

In the Nov. 3 election, Tacoma voters overwhelmingly voted to gradually increase the city’s minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2018. The first bump happens in February and takes the wage floor to $10.35 per hour for all who work in Tacoma more than 80 hours a year. The state’s current minimum wage is $9.47 per hour.

The draft rules are published on the city’s website. They include definitions, how employees can file complaints against employers, employer requirements to maintain records and other legal language. Several public meetings have been held, and the city is accepting further comment until the end of the day Friday (Dec. 18).

Harding said many of the rules are written to mirror state law. Kueter noted the city’s proposed rule on record-keeping actually deviates from state law. The city language calls for the employer to make a reasonable effort to track an employee’s time in Tacoma as long as the method is consistent.

“State law is quite detailed about record-keeping and tracking requirements,” Kueter said. Tacoma’s proposed rule “is that there are no standards except whatever the employer determines.”

Deputy city attorney Debra Casparian said Thursday that this was the first time she’d heard that concern and planned to investigate.

Kueter said other parts of the rules seem to shift enforcement responsibility to the state Department of Labor & Industries, and preclude Tacoma from investigating violations of its own law. Casparian and city attorney Elizabeth Pauli said that’s not the case, and in fact the rules are intended to provide efficient enforcement while retaining the city’s discretion to investigate on its own.

Finally, one of the proposed rules deals with “service charges” used by business owners. Consistent with state law, the charges must tell customers what the charge will be used for. If it’s intended to be used for employees, that will be considered commission and therefore part of the minimum wage calculation.

Service charges are a “backdoor way to get around tips and gratuities” not being used to calculate an hourly wage, Kueter said. State law allows it, he said, but it shouldn’t. And Kueter is concerned that Tacoma’s rules are written in such a way that even if state law changes to close that back door, the city’s would keep it open.

City attorney Elizabeth Pauli said the rules must reflect the the spirit and letter of what was approved by voters.

“Our interpretations are going off of plain language of the code and not what organizers thought they meant,” she said.

Information from News Tribune archives was used in this report.

Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546, @KCooperTNT

TO GET INVOLVED

Read the draft rules: Go to www.cityoftacoma.org/minimumwage

To comment: Email minimumwage@cityoftacoma.org or call 253-591-5306

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