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$15 minimum wage advocates raise red flag over Tucson's plans for Labor Standards office

The city of Tucson is setting up a new Labor Standards Unit to prevent employers from denying workers their wages, but advocates of the minimum wage increase measure passed last fall are raising a red flag, saying there’s a major oversight in how officials plan to organize the new office.

Tucson voters passed Prop. 206 in November by a 2-1 margin, and set the minimum wage to increase to $15 by January 2025. In addition to creating a gradual raise in the minimum wage, starting on April 1 with a bump to $13, the proposition called for a city department to enforce the payment of wages.

The department would prevent wage theft and protect the rights of employees as well as inform them of those rights. The Tucson City Manager's Office, which is preparing to launch an outreach campaign about the upcoming increase, announced that they want to hand this responsibility over to the Business Services Department. CJ Boyd, who was the campaign manager for the Fight for $15 effort, said that move is an “oversight” and called for the public to confront the City Council about the issue at their meeting on Tuesday. 

The City Manager's Office trusts the Business Services Department, usually responsible for maintaining the city’s finances and their ability to deliver services, because they have the data, technology and staff already suited to enforce the new labor standards, Lane Mandle, the city chief of staff, told the Tucson Sentinel.

That stance ignores that Business Services is more “employer-oriented,” said Boyd, who is now a staffer for Councilman Kevin Dahl — who told the Sentinel that he wasn't ready to comment on the issue. Boyd said he was speaking about his personal point of view, and not the Ward 3 councilman's.

“This thing needs to be an independent department. It’s not supposed to be an office within some other department. More importantly, if it is going to be subsumed, it needs to be within something that has the same perspective,” Boyd said. “Business Services is great, this isn’t anything against them, but they’re job there is to advocate for employers, and the job of this office is to advocate for employees.”

The language of Prop. 206 “does give the city leeway as far as how they can do it,” Boyd said, but it also specifies the creation of a new department with its own department head, according to the minimum wage ordinance. It also gives that department the power to receive complaints, initiate investigations and “enforcement actions,” conduct studies of low-wage workers and educate employers and employees about their obligations and rights.

The main task of the Labor Standards department laid out in Prop. 206, Boyd said, is serving employees who have a complaint against their employer and enforcing against wage theft — or refusing to pay a worker their wages — which “happens a lot in this country,” he said.

The Labor Standards Unit that the city is putting together to meet this requirement will have an administrator and will follow a communication plan to inform employees and employers about wage theft, Mandle said, but Boyd is asking the public to speak out against the “conflict of interest” in the city’s design of the new office at the upcoming City Council meeting.

“The offices of mayor and Council need to hear from the community this week about why this is problematic. This decision would be like if the offices of public defenders were under the office of prosecutors. It's not about one being better than the other. They need to be independent because they each advocate for different people who have opposed interests,” Boyd wrote in a Facebook post. “City Council needs to hear about this from concerned constituents and from as many voices as possible. If you share the concern and want to see this new office really hold wage-stealing employers accountable, can you write to each of the Council and mayor and express that?”

Boyd and other advocates from Fight for $15, the group that led the effort to put Prop. 206 on the city ballot, have been working with Mandle and city staff as they prepare for the first wage increase on April 1. A Labor Standards office won’t be open by that April 1 deadline, Boyd and Mandle said, so they have time to keep planning. Officials haven’t said when it will begin operating.

The city continues to share information about their plans for the office with Boyd and Fight for $15 in the meantime, he said. Although he is pushing back against the city on this, he doesn’t think the city is being “malicious,” and there just needs to be some accountability.

“This can definitely be resolved without a big conflict. I think it’s just something that was probably an oversight by the City Manager's Officeand can be remedied,” he said. “Mayor and Council have a million things on their plate at all times, and this is something that if no attention was paid to it all, it might just sort of happen quietly with no big hurrah.”

The next step is accountability

The night that Prop. 206 passed in November, fellow Fight for $15 advocates Zaira Livier and Billy Peard said that the next step will be making sure that the city of Tucson carries out the new ordinance properly. This is one example of that next step, Boyd said, but it won’t be the only.

“There will be other things as well. I think this is the first of those things, and some will have public input, some will not,” he said. The next action to watch, he said, will be the appointment of the Labor Standards director. “I would love that to be someone who has a history of advocating for workers.”

It would be concerning, he said, for example, if the city appointed someone from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, who advocated against Prop. 206. There has to be some vigilance from the public to make sure that the city picks someone who defends labor rights, he said, because there’s no other way to ensure that will happen.

“There’s no way to legislate or require that they hire somebody good,” Boyd said. “But I would like to see that be somebody who has a long history of advocating for workers, not somebody who is generally not on the right side of workers rights.”

Earlier in the year, City Attorney Mike Rankin told the City Council that he was going to challenge one part of the newly passed proposition: whether to allow the use of Tucson city courts for cases where employees want to sue their employer for violations of wage theft. Part of Prop. 206 would allow those cases to take place in city courts.

This is another example of the kind of accountability that Livier and Peard had mentioned, Boyd said. Tucson city courts aren’t where Tucson residents typically litigate against each other; rather, they’re usually where the city litigates against its residents. It’s a different way of using the city's courts, Boyd said, but lawyers who helped write Prop. 206 are certain it’s legal to use them that way despite Rankin’s view.

There has been a dialogue over this issue, Boyd said, but he’s not sure where Rankin stands on the issue now. Either way, more back-and-forth is taking place between the city and the public over how to carry out Prop. 206, only a few months since its passage and three years before it’s fully implemented.

The city will soon finalize an informational website on the rights created by Prop. 206, and staff is planning a series of meetings with business owners to inform them about new labor standards created by proposition, Mandle said.  The meetings will also allow them to give input on its implementation. Those meetings are scheduled for March 24 and 25, she said, and the city has already started inviting local employers to attend.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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