SEATTLE – At restaurants and coffee shops, construction sites and tourist-packed fish markets, the workers and business owners of this city are testing a future that some Minneapolis leaders envision here.
Nearly all Seattle workers are now entitled to paid sick leave. Many also saw their pay go up this year after the city approved a $15-an-hour minimum wage — the nation’s highest. Seattle has built an entire new office around enforcing those laws and others meant to protect workers.
Minneapolis labor leaders and their allies on the City Council often point to Seattle as a kind of West Coast cousin to emulate. They’ve pressed the city to adopt its own minimum-wage increase, along with laws that would require employers to release workers’ schedules weeks in advance.
Those emerging proposals have met fierce resistance from Minneapolis’ business community, which contends the measures would hurt hiring and could force them to relocate. Mayor Betsy Hodges recently tabled the push for new workplace scheduling rules, but she continues to back a policy that would require all employers to offer paid sick leave. In its initial form, at least, the Minneapolis ordinance would be even more sweeping than Seattle’s because it would apply to every employer, from the largest to the smallest.
Dave Bowman, who has run a small refrigeration company in Seattle for more than three decades, was among those who predicted that his city’s new sick leave mandate would put some small companies out of business and force others to drop other forms of pay and benefits.
Today, even Bowman acknowledges that has not happened. Job growth in the Seattle region remains strong, and unemployment low. Still, Bowman thinks the added costs may have prevented him from providing more cost-of-living raises. And he expressed a sentiment heard often during the raucous debates in Minneapolis City Hall.
“I would kind of like to reserve the right to make my own decision to attract my own employees rather than have some city employee cram it down my throat,” he said.
Signs of Seattle’s booming economy are everywhere. Last year, the New York Times declared that Seattle was “the new center of a tech boom,” thanks to start-ups and giants such as Amazon and Microsoft. Cranes rise above the downtown Seattle skyline, piecing together gleaming condominiums. The median home value has surged almost 15 percent in the past year to $575,000 — more than twice that of Minneapolis.
Many of Seattle’s new workplace rules have the same rationale as those being discussed in Minneapolis: to give low-wage workers some of the same benefits and stability as people working in higher-paying jobs. In Minneapolis, a study recently released by sick-leave advocates said about 123,000 Minneapolis workers lack access to paid sick time.
In Pioneer Square, a historic downtown Seattle neighborhood with brick streets and a sizable homeless population, small-business owners noted that change is in the air. High-end offices and businesses are moving in, following the money from big tech corporations.
J.B. Dickey said his Seattle Mystery Bookshop, tucked in the lower level of an old stone building, is exempt from providing sick leave because he has fewer than five employees. But he still worries the city’s efforts to keep the city livable for lower-income residents — mandating sick time and raising the minimum wage among them — will end up hurting businesses like his.
“You hear about things and your heart stops,” he said. “They are always monkeying with something to make your lives more difficult.”
Several of the groups and individuals who spoke out against the sick leave ordinance — including the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the Seattle Society for Human Resources Management and the Seattle Restaurant Alliance — either did not return calls seeking comment or declined to comment in detail.
While some political differences remain, the sick leave law hasn’t been the job killer some feared.
In the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area, employment numbers and the labor force have grown steadily over the past few years. In August, employment was up by more than 8 percent over August 2011, the last month before the sick-leave law went into effect.
Some employers worry more about the new minimum wage, which went into effect in April, than they do sick leave.
Molly Moon Neitzel began offering sick leave at her five Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream locations when the city began discussing the new law. Since then, she’s opened another location and said the financial toll of the policy on her business has amounted to “pennies.”
A University of Washington study completed a year after the law went into effect found that a majority of business owners agreed. In two surveys of 300 randomly sampled businesses and additional interviews, the majority of business owners reported no effect on customer service, employee absenteeism or profitability. “Anecdotal cost information puts the cost of providing leave at about four-tenths of one percent of total revenue,” the study said.
The main problem it discovered: Not enough people knew about the law or were following it correctly. Four in 10 employers were either not covering both full- and part-time workers or failing to provide the required number of sick-leave hours.
The city of Seattle, meanwhile, was unprepared to process the claims flowing into its Office for Civil Rights. It had one full-time employee to handle sick-leave issues. Now, there’s a full office with a staff of seven, which could grow to nine next year.
“We found that the way we approached enforcement for discrimination laws wasn’t working,” said Karina Bull, a city senior policy analyst.
So far, the city has launched 112 formal investigations into sick time violations, reached 46 formal settlements with employers and ordered $40,161 in compensation for workers. Another 196 reports were handled with an informal advisory letter.
A list of the businesses challenged in those cases shows it’s not an issue confined to a single industry. Among those named are a salon, a pharmacy, a janitorial service, the Seattle Mariners, the Seattle Children’s Theater and a medical marijuana association.
Nicole Vallestero Keenan, executive director of Seattle’s Fair Work Center, said sick leave has been a boon to some workers but more complicated than the city had anticipated.
“There’s a difference between passing a policy and passing a substantive policy,” she said. “In order to pass a substantive policy … you also create the infrastructure to make it real.”
Seattle recently set aside $1 million for additional outreach. Community organizers and advocates say many immigrants and low-wage workers are still unaware of their rights.
Around the city, some workers quizzed on the issue said they knew they could take sick leave, though some didn’t know about the law. A clerk at a costume and novelty shop, who declined to give her name, said she had used sick time and was glad the law had been approved.
Pike Place Market fishmonger Zachary Swingle said he’d worked in the fish business for a few years but had never earned sick leave before he moved to Seattle. He said it’s useful, especially in a job that comes with 12-hour days of entertaining crowds.
Stephanie Davenport, a spokeswoman for the Restaurant Alliance, said most of the calls her organization still receives on the law are related to employers or employees who don’t understand it. She said business owners have been confused by how employees can accrue and carry over sick time, and uncertain about their own administrative responsibilities.
“It’s very complicated and confusing,” Davenport said. “A simple, to-the-point policy would be best.”
The Minneapolis sick leave ordinance is expected to come before the City Council for a vote in February. The same month, another new sick-leave ordinance will go into effect in Tacoma, Seattle’s next-door neighbor. Last week, voters there approved a $12 minimum wage.