The Seattle City Council will consider whether to increase funding for the Office of Labor Standards by tapping the general fund or by taxing businesses. Mayor Ed Murray has proposed the former.

Share story

First, a Seattle union submitted a ballot initiative that would charge businesses to pay for ramped-up enforcement of the city’s labor laws, including the minimum wage.

Next, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to its members urging them to lobby the City Council against such a tax.

Seeing two groups with serious political clout girding themselves for battle last week, Mayor Ed Murray quickly stepped in.

The mayor this week addressed Service Employees International Union Local 775’s appeal for more enforcement by proposing Seattle double the budget of its Office of Labor Standards.

But he also sided with the Chamber by saying the money should come from the city’s general fund, rather than from a new tax.

Though Murray is offering something to both groups, he’ll need the City Council to approve the plan as part of putting together a new budget later this year. So for now, the debate will continue.

“This is a really good first step,” said Adam Glickman, SEIU 775’s secretary-treasurer. “But we’re still concerned about not having a permanent, dedicated funding source and we don’t think (Murray’s plan) goes quite far enough.”

Murray opened the labor-standards office last April to oversee a number of worker protections adopted by the city in recent years. Those include paid sick-time and a series of minimum-wage hikes bringing all employees to $15 an hour by 2017.

The council passed a budget statement last year declaring its intent to boost support for the office through a dedicated source and asking the mayor to help council staff members develop a plan.

An April 1 memo responding to the statement laid out three options: Enact a new employee-hours tax, also known as a head tax, on businesses; increase the Business License Tax, or raise Business and Occupation Tax rates.

The council has yet to decide on one course or another. Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s civil-rights committee likely will take up the issue next month.

The mayor’s plan would increase the labor-standards budget by $3.6 million next year and expand the office from nine staff members to 22.

Murray says the money is needed to handle a growing number of complaints and investigations. The office has 150 open investigations, up from 112 in December.

“Without additional staffing, the city cannot effectively investigate complaints and enforce the city’s labor laws,” the mayor said in a statement. “We must also expand our proactive education and outreach to both workers and businesses.”

Under Murray’s plan, $1.5 million would help support and educate workers next year, while $800,000 would be spent on outreach to businesses.

SEIU 775’s proposed initiative, now being reviewed by the city clerk, would add a surcharge to the Business License Tax equal to a penny for each hour worked by each employee. The union estimates the surcharge would raise about $5 million to $6 million per year, Glickman said.

Maud Daudon, the Chamber’s president, praised Murray’s plan.

“We support good enforcement of our laws,” she said. “We think it’s a core city responsibility. And that should come out of the general fund. We should use that instead of any new … taxes at this time.”

Daudon urged the City Council to tap the general fund, saying, “If the council can find money in the general fund to hire additional legislative assistants and to bail out a bike-share program, it should be able to find a similar amount of money to enforce its own laws.”

Glickman, of SEIU 775, said Murray’s proposed $3.6 million increase isn’t large enough.

Daudon said money for outreach related to Seattle’s labor laws should be spent evenly between employees and employers, rather than skewed toward workers.

“We are requesting a 50-50 split,” she said.