A new public-private partnership of 18 government and corporate employers is launching the BEST Employers Alliance, aimed at fighting sex trafficking.

Share story

Working with Google, King County prosecutors made an unexpected discovery when they analyzed bits of data from 100,000 online searches conducted by prospective sex buyers over three weeks last winter.

In that brief snapshot, they saw a peak in activity: Two o’clock in the afternoon was prime time for men in King County to troll websites like backpage.com, presumably seeking to set up after-work “dates” with women advertising sexual services, said King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Valiant “Val” Richey.

For many, that activity is being done at work.

That knowledge helped solidify a unique public-private partnership of 18 government and corporate employers with a combined workforce of more than 125,000 people.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The official launch of the BEST Employers Alliance, created by local nonprofit Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), will be announced during a luncheon Tuesday.

Employers in the alliance have agreed to block websites where sex is advertised, update personnel policies and make it clear to employees that sex buying won’t be tolerated.

“We’ve caught guys on the way to work, on the way home from work, in cars full of work materials,” Richey said. “There’s a nexus between these guys and their work and it’s something we see as an opportunity for businesses to play a role in.”

King County — which employs nearly 14,000 people — was among the first employers to sign on to the alliance. The city of Seattle, with roughly 10,000 employees, confirmed Friday it was joining as a founding member, said Mar Brettmann, BEST’s executive director.

Two p.m. “is the heart of the workday, obviously,” said Richey, who prosecutes felony cases against men caught by police trying to buy sex with juveniles. He’s filed charges in 43 cases this year, one more than in all of 2014.

With an estimated 27,000 buyers soliciting online sex through 130 different websites in King County every day, it wasn’t hard to deduce that a sizable number were likely on the clock and using work phones and computers to browse ads and connect with women and girls in the sex trade, Richey said. He said court cases and a small-sample survey of local prostitution survivors bolster that supposition.

The BEST Employers Alliance is an extension of the county’s two-year, Buyer Beware program launched a year ago to increase the risk of arrest for men through street-level stings and undercover operations.

“No other jurisdiction in the country has tried this relationship with employers to change the culture,” said Richey’s boss, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “It’s a way for employers to say, ‘It doesn’t reflect the values of our business or our company to participate in activities that exploit other human beings.’ ”

In joining the alliance, each employer first assesses its existing workplace policies, looking for gaps in rules regarding criminal conduct, work time and travel, and use of work equipment, facilities and properties. From there, employers will have access to BEST training materials and best practices that can be tailored to different kinds of workplaces and industries.

On Monday afternoon, King County employees received emailed copies of the county’s new sex-trafficking and sexual-services policy, said Chad Lewis, a spokesman for Executive Dow Constantine.

The policy is a way to create a “bright line” for employee conduct, but its larger purpose is to advance the county’s commitment to equity and social justice — and empower employees to take action should they encounter suspected sex trafficking while doing their jobs, said Constantine.

“The lines are very bright when we’re talking about public resources,” he said, but employees’ off-duty conduct will also be subject to discipline, including termination.

Constantine sees the new policy as a way to set an example for other large employers and galvanize “our employees to action in defense of children and adults who are being trafficked for sex.”

BEST got its start in 2012, working with the Washington Lodging Association and the Seattle Hotel Association to train hotel employees how to spot and report signs of sex trafficking within their businesses, said Brettmann.

BEST has trained 700 hotel employees across the state, with 44 percent of participating hoteliers reporting one to five suspected cases to police, up from 8 percent in the year before the training, she said.

Many hotels now loan rooms to law enforcement to conduct undercover operations and in exchange, police keep their activities inside the hotels as low-key as possible, Brettmann said.

“Word gets out to pimps the activity is unwelcome,” said Brettmann.

But hotels aren’t the only businesses unwittingly helping to facilitate prostitution, she said. Traffickers use a variety of companies to recruit and transport girls and women, and use other private property — such as parking lots and truck stops — to conduct illicit transactions.

The Organization for Prostitution Survivors, another local nonprofit, surveyed 27 prostitution survivors — and more than 60 percent said “they’d had sex with clients on company properties” where the men worked, “which is a huge risk to businesses,” Brettmann said.

Meanwhile, 85 percent of sex buyers are employed in the private sector, with the remainder working for public agencies, schools, churches and nonprofits, she said.

Sex scandals can damage a company’s reputation, as evidenced by the arrest earlier this year of Subway spokesman Jared Fogle, who pleaded guilty to federal charges he paid juveniles for sex and possessed hundreds of sexual images of minors.

“It reflects poorly on you, just like my hotel clients don’t want their names on the 11 o’clock news” in connection with sex trafficking, said Sandip Soli, a partner at Seattle law firm Cairncross & Hempelmann, which employs 100 people.

Soli, who specializes in real-estate and hospitality law, began volunteering at BEST training sessions three years ago, assuring hoteliers they couldn’t be sued if an employee reasonably reported someone to police who later turned out not to be involved in the sex trade.

Given the work his Pioneer Square firm does advising hotels, Soli said, “It was kind of a no brainer to look inward” and join the BEST Employers Alliance.

“It’s not just reputational — it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Business have to be vigilant to make sure it doesn’t happen under their nose.”