Two weeks after the city’s $10.50 minimum wage kicked in, the office entrusted with minimum wage enforcement will officially get a new leader.
The Office of Labor Standards was created as a requirement of Proposition 414, the city’s minimum wage law that was passed by voters in November.
Earlier this year, the city temporarily hired James May on a contract basis to get the department up and running. Last week, the city formally appointed Clifton Bryson, who was a zoning code compliance officer with the city, to fill the permanent position.
In the months before the city’s minimum wage took effect, May held several outreach open houses and attended community events to help educate business owners and employees about the changes to the minimum wage.
While May said he felt “a sense of relief,” from business owners that the city’s wage was going to be $10.50 in July instead of the $12 that would have taken effect if the city council had not directly amended the law, he said businesses were still concerned about how they would respond to the increase schedule. As the law stands, the city’s minimum wage will gradually increase to $15.50 in 2022, which would be the highest minimum wage to be implemented in the country so far.
The office has not received any complaints about businesses failing to pay the city’s minimum wage yet, May said, but he has gotten calls from both employers and employees with questions about what information is required to be posted, who is eligible for the $10.50 minimum wage and other concerns.
“It’s important for us to raise our visibility,” May said. “We want to be seen as a safe place for workers to go to get issues resolved.”
The office has also not been able to track businesses that close and cite minimum wage as a factor.
May said so far, business closures blaming the increasing wage have been “purely anecdotal.”
“For some, minimum wage has been listed as a factor, but I’m not sure if it’s the deciding factor,” he said.
The office is tasked with minimum wage enforcement, investigating claims of wage theft and responding to reports of retaliation against employees who come forward with issues.
Those responsibilities will fall to Bryson, who officially becomes Labor Standards Manager July 17. Investigation and enforcement were a natural fit for Bryson, who spent about 10 years working for the Arizona Department of Public Safety as a state trooper, detective and other positions before he began working with the city in code compliance, he said.
“My heart is with the city,” he said. “My big thing is education and awareness.”
When he worked in code compliance, he led investigations and had to educate people about rules they might not have been aware of, much like what he will be doing as Labor Standards Manager, he said.
He understands minimum wage has been an emotional issue for both sides, and said while it will not always be possible for him to make everyone happy, he will build trust with businesses and employees.
“If you’re balanced and equitable you can gain credibility and gain trust,” Bryson said.
Through interviews and research done with other cities that have created minimum wages that are higher than their states, May said he learned most of the complaints come from industries that are large economic drivers in Flagstaff: hospitality and restaurants.
“Other cities have seen the most complaints come from the lodging and restaurant industries, so we expect that our experience will be similar,” May said.
At first, the office will operate on a complaint-driven basis, May said, but Bryson may also eventually implement an audit system, where he would go into select businesses and check for compliance.
If a complaint is filed, the complainant will be asked to produce documentation that the law has been violated. The office will then ask the employer for documentation about wages in the company, and will build a case. If the business is found to have violated the law, Bryson and his office will try to come to a settlement agreement with the business, like ordering the owner to pay back wages. If the two cannot come to an agreement, an administrative hearing will be held, and a hearing officer will determine the penalties. If the two still cannot come to an agreement, either party has the ability to take the case to court.
It will be up to workers to provide documentation to help build their case, Bryson said, so workers should keep track of their hourly pay, hours worked and other factors that can help determine if a company is not complying with the law. Immigration status will not be taken into account during investigations.
The law applies to anyone who does 25 hours of work or more in Flagstaff in a year. However, for some types of businesses, like trucking or others that might only spend a short time in Flagstaff, it will be up to employees and employers to keep track of the prevailing wage where work is being completed and respond accordingly, May said.
The city does not have a way of tracking how many minimum wage workers there are in the various businesses in the city, so May said there is not an estimate yet about the volume of complaints the office will get.
The city’s office will focus solely on provisions of Proposition 414, Flagstaff’s minimum wage law. However, May said he and Bryson are working to build relationships with the Department of Labor and the Industrial Commission of Arizona, which enforce federal and state laws regarding labor, so they can refer complainants to other departments if they have worries about earned sick leave and other issues not contained on Flagstaff’s law.