What’s Working: Seattle’s Fair Work Center


Fair Work Center, Seattle

At The Workers Lab, we’re really excited about highlighting new models, strategies, and platforms for building power for working people.  Until recently, we’ve focused on supporting worker organizations to have independent revenue streams to advance this work.  This blog highlights another, complementary approach.   We’d love to share the work taking place in Seattle led by the Fair Work Center as an example of how organizing workers to pass enforceable policies is a key strategy for addressing rampant income inequality and building power for working people.

As cities across the country from Oakland to Los Angeles, pass policies increasing their minimum wage the sweetness of victory is often short-lived.  There are often challenges with ensuring that policies are enforced, workers are protected, and local governments acting as partners in the implementation of policies.  The Fair Work Center is testing a new way forward that creates accountability and transforms the lives of workers.   Below are some reflections from Fair Work Center Executive Director, Nicole Vallestero Keenan.

We started the Fair Work Center because there was a significant gap in resources for workers facing problems at work in Seattle.  When I was sitting on the committee to help pass $15 in Seattle, a number of workers approached me with problems at work, but there was no established resource to send them if they didn’t meet a particular union’s model or an organization’s community base.  We realized a need for a networked organization that can support workers when their rights are violated in real time.

One year later, thanks to significant investment from labor and the City of Seattle, the Fair Work Center launched to make sure every worker in Seattle knows their rights and has the support they need when their rights are violated. The Fair Work Center is a hub where workers can learn to understand and exercise their legal rights, improve working conditions and connect with community resources.

We train our community partners to be labor standards experts, provide free legal services, train workers on their rights, support individual workers in real time. Over the next year and a half, we will develop and launch mobile education platforms to share the latest information on labor standards and make sure workers can document violations with their mobile phones.

Before Fair Work Center, there was no existing community hub for explicitly designed for workers in any industry, who spoke any language to receive legal support, training referrals and counseling when their rights are violated at work. We have day labor centers, community organizations and unions that advocate for workers – but we wanted to create a one-stop-shop for workers.  We found a niche in Seattle’s non-profit infrastructure and wanted to honor the power of existing organizations who do great work in the community. So we created the Fair Work Center to work in partnership with many existing advocacy and social service agencies in Seattle.

We convened a collaborative of eight community partners who will work together to make sure every worker in Seattle knows their rights and is committed to using innovative tools to do this outreach. Our coalition is poised to reach workers who are the most vulnerable to labor standards violations and discrimination at the workplace including: people of color, women, immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ workers, young workers, elderly workers and people who have limited English.

We provide training for our partners on workers rights and labor standards, and we meet regularly to share ideas and develop innovative ways to do outreach.  One of our partners (21 Progress) is working with us to develop an SMS curriculum on workers rights, and another is developing a video series on workers rights for the LGBTQ community.  On our end, we are developing mobile tools for education and documenting labor standards violations.

When our partners encounter a worker whose rights have been violated, they work with us to make sure that worker is supported if they choose to file a claim or needs legal support.  This allows the worker to understand their options when their rights are violated and feel prepared to take further steps.

Enforcing labor laws is an enormous undertaking that requires every possible resource. We are partnering with experts in every field to develop better ways to enforce labor standards including: eight community organizations,  two of Seattle’s largest universities, labor unions and the City of Seattle.

Creating a robust partnership with the City allows us to understand how governments enforce labor standards and make sure that every worker we refer to their enforcement agency is as prepared as possible if they file a claim.   Additionally, we consider the City of Seattle a thought partner in how we do outreach and education.  They attend our collaborative meetings, share insights on what they are encountering as an enforcement agency, and we share the challenges our collaborative sees on the ground.  This level of partnership allows our education and intake efforts to be up-to date and comprehensive, and allows the city to get real-time feedback from community partners about experiences for workers on the ground.  The City is also making significant investments to make sure that small businesses have the resources, knowledge and support to follow our labor laws.

Seattle’s labor unions are not only deeply committed to their members, but also to workers whose rights are being violated in our region.  Labor unions have stewards the field complaints and support workers, they have legal counsels to advocate for individual workers whose rights have been violated, and they have collective bargaining agreements that enumerate specific rights for each workers.  Labor has been enforcing and advocating for workers rights for over 100 years – we have a lot to learn about what worked and what didn’t from labor and innovate new ways to support workers whose rights are violated.

We have also developed strong partnerships with Seattle University and the University of Washington who offer us research support, trainings and resources to ensure that our work is research-backed.  Over the next year we will launch a non-profit housed law school course, where students can learn from our Legal Director (who has 15+ years of experience in employment law and is currently a professor at Seattle University).  We are also partnering with the University of Washington School of Public Health: Occupational Health and Safety so that our team and our partners have access to occupational health and safety experts.

In the new economy, we have to think of different ways to reach workers and different tools to enforce laws.  Over the past few months we have seen countless new and old ways that bad actors steal money and take advantage of their workers.  We have seen employers garnish wages for child support without dispersing funds, withholding pay stubs so workers can’t assess what they have been paid, retaliation when workers are injured on the job, and flatly ignoring Seattle’s labor standards.  Bringing these violations to light, understanding new and different ways wages are stolen, and quantifying these violations will demonstrate the need for investments like Seattle is making across the country.
Even though we launched just 3 months ago, we are already making a big impact on the lives of the workers we have supported and we have ambitious plans to reach and support thousands of workers over the next year.

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