December 20, 2013

D.C. needs a raise, and it’s about to get one. Workers across the District are celebrating the D.C. Council’s decision last week to give final approval to a bill that increases the local minimum wage to $11.50 an hour by 2016 and expands paid sick days to restaurant workers.

But even the best laws don’t work unless they are enforced. Unfortunately, the agency charged with enforcing these measures, the Department of Employment Services (DOES), hasn’t been able to get the job done. Instead, the District needs to create a separate department of labor to do it right.

DOES must play two divergent roles: Half the agency funds career training and matches job seekers with jobs; the other half is charged with protecting workers’ rights, such as the right to a minimum wage, the right to earn sick days and the right to unemployment insurance.

Establishing a separate labor department would allow the District to enforce workers’ rights better, while freeing the rest of DOES to focus on truly effective workforce development. Several states assign these functions to separate agencies, but the District combined them. That was a mistake.

DOES’s competing objectives have kept the agency from achieving either. To accomplish its job training and placement mission, an agency must form strong, collaborative working relationships with employers, just as a private job placement agency does. But to effectively enforce workplace protection laws, an agency must be willing to hold businesses accountable if they violate the law, even if doing so makes violators feel less kindly toward the D.C. government. In essence, DOES managers are being asked to enforce laws against employers one day and collaborate with them the next.

The tension isn’t theoretical. Pulled between these two roles, DOES is failing.

In October, the public learned that thousands of low-wage employees of D.C. government contractors have each lost thousands of dollars in pay because DOES has failed for nearly three years to adjust the District’s living wage for inflation, as required by D.C. law.

The month before, DOES’s failure to make adequate progress on improving the unemployment system cost the city $1.4 million in federal grant money that could have been used to strengthen the system.

And in June, a study by the D.C. auditor found that nearly one in three businesses were not providing paid sick days, as most were required to do under District law, but DOES had not levied penalties against even a single violator. At the same time, DOES’s ability to manage job training and placement has been equally compromised, causing the District to be designated at a “high-risk” of losing major federal workforce development grants.

Right now we have an opportunity to make changes to DOES. This month, we learned that the District’s top employment official, Lisa Mallory , is leaving government to become the chief executive of the D.C. Building Industry Association. The vacancy provides an opportunity for the mayor, or the ever-growing list of candidates seeking to become mayor, to propose real solutions to fix DOES’s mission confusion.

It is time for the District to create a separate department of labor. Let’s encourage the mayor, and those who would be mayor, to seize on this opportunity to get more District residents into good jobs and make sure they get paid fairly. If we care about getting good, living-wage jobs for D.C. residents and about helping the District’s economy grow by supporting local businesses, we can’t keep asking one agency to do the job of two.

Ari Weisbard is deputy director of the Employment Justice Center. Marina Streznewski is executive director of the D.C. Jobs Council.