Matt Driscoll

Tacoma should not rush to blow up a paid sick-leave policy that is benefiting workers

Columnist Matt Driscoll
Columnist Matt Driscoll jbessex@gateline.com

Just in time for Labor Day, there’s a looming labor question for the Tacoma City Council.

The 2016 passage of Initiative 1433 by Washington voters — which increased the state’s minimum wage and, as of January, will require employers to provide paid sick-leave to employees — made Tacoma’s own paid-sick leave law outdated.

Now, the council has been asked to align city law with the state’s law, which is more generous in some areas. At the very least, the weaker parts of city law — like the amount of sick leave provided — should be updated to comport with the new state directives.

But in reworking and tweaking Tacoma’s paid sick-leave law, council members should think twice before dismantling an enforcement model that’s paid big dividends for Tacoma workers.

There’s clear, indisputable evidence that Tacoma’s paid sick-leave law has been a success for working people and that current enforcement in Tacoma — which relies on “workplace wide” investigations once a complaint is filed — is worth the effort.

According to city of Tacoma staff, the first 18 months of enforcement of the city’s law resulted in 595 workers receiving nearly $169,000 in value from recovered leave and wages.

According to city of Tacoma staff, the first 18 months of enforcement of the city’s paid sick-leave law resulted in 595 workers receiving nearly $169,000 in value from recovered leave and wages.

The numbers aren’t expected to be nearly as high if regulations currently under review by state Labor & Industries come to pass.

Those draft rules would require investigations and enforcements of only individual complaints, meaning just the case of the worker or workers who file complaints would be scrutinized, not those of their co-workers.

Under that scenario, during the same 18-month period, only 20 workers would have been compensated, according to the city’s records, and just $4,672 in value from recovered leave and wages would have been realized.

A stark contrast. And potentially alarming for the city’s workers — depending on what happens next.

Here’s one of the big reasons why Tacoma’s enforcement is so effective:

Currently, when a complaint is filed with the city, the complainant remains anonymous, and all of a business’s employees stand to benefit if a violation is found.

For instance, the first complaint filed with Tacoma’s Employment Standards Office came from one person, but when a settlement agreement was reached, all of the business’ 32 workers benefited.

The total financial remedy of the settlement reached $1,745, a figure that would have been much lower if just the original complaint was considered.

In other words, the unintended consequences of handing things off to L&I could be far-reaching.

But that outcome isn’t an absolute certainty at this point.

As Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber noted, the precise rules and enforcement techniques that L&I will use have not been finalized. Tim Church, a spokesman for L&I, confirmed they likely won’t be finished until December.

Speaking on behalf of the Chamber, Pierson advocated for ending Tacoma’s own enforcement efforts.

“Why would you then spend (city) resources to basically double enforce? Because you believe your enforcement is better than the state’s enforcement?” Pierson said. “I don’t see Tacoma PD out on the highway on I-5 doing speed enforcement.”

Why would you then spend (city) resources to basically double enforce? Because you believe your enforcement is better than the state’s enforcement? ... I don’t see Tacoma PD out on the highway on I-5 doing speed enforcement.

Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber

It’s a fair point.

There’s roughly $700,000 budgeted in the 2017-2018 biennium for the city’s enforcement, outreach and education program. If L&I’s enforcement ends up being just as robust, there’s little question that some of that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Here, too, there are a few substantial “ifs” to consider.

If city staff’s recommendation to continue local enforcement is premature because we don’t yet know how L&I will enforce the law, as Pierson argues, so too is getting rid of Tacoma’s enforcement efforts now.

What if L&I’s enforcement is nowhere near as robust — as the draft rules and the agency’s current reliance on individual investigations suggest?

We know what would have happened over the past 18 months, anyway: Hundreds of Tacoma workers would not have received the compensation they were due.

That’s why, for the sake of those very workers and in the spirit of the paid sick-leave law passed here in 2015, we’re obligated to wait and see what happens next before blowing up a program that’s worked as well as it has.

On the surface, this should be a simple, straightforward matter.

When the City Council takes up the matter in mid-September, it can make sure the more generous elements of Tacoma’s paid sick-leave law are maintained, while the rest jibes with the new state law.

As for enforcement, Tacoma’s track record of success demonstrates a best practice. The state would be wise to take a note out of Tacoma’s playbook.

But, until it does, Tacoma’s enforcement office should be maintained. The proof of its worth is in its track record.

Ask any of the 595 workers who have been aided by Tacoma’s enforcement program, and my guess is they would agree.

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