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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 5, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 23
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Dylan Orr, new director of Seattle's Office of Labor Standards
Section One
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Dylan Orr, new director of Seattle's Office of Labor Standards

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

When Dylan Orr takes up his new duties with the City of Seattle, he will be the first director of the City's new Office of Labor Standards, the agency that will oversee enforcement of the minimum wage ordinance and other City labor laws.

Orr returns to Seattle, his hometown, after five years in the Obama administration's Labor Department, where he was the first openly Transgender presidential appointee in U.S. history.

'It feels really good to be home,' Orr told SGN. 'My roots are here, my community is here, my family is here. It's just good to be back.'

Orr's appointment was not without controversy, more for the way in which he was chosen than for anything to do with him personally. Mayor Ed Murray picked a committee of business, labor, and non-profit representatives to select a director for the new enforcement office - an approach that has become standard operating procedure for the mayor.

Remarkably, the diverse members of the committee reached consensus on a list of four potential nominees, but Murray ignored their recommendations and appointed Orr instead, leaving committee members to wonder publicly why the mayor had wasted their time.

Orr, however, was philosophical about the controversy.

'For me, it's just going to be about moving forward,' he said. 'I can't worry about what happened before I got here.

'Because it was controversial, my priority will be to build relationships with the folks I need to work with to enforce the [minimum wage] ordinance. The priority is to build trust, and hopefully people will see me as someone committed to seeing that the law works.'

What if I think my boss is shortchanging me?
Orr urged any employees who think their boss is not complying with City labor ordinances to contact the Office of Labor Standards at the City's Civil Rights office, 206-684-4500. The office's web page is at seattle.gov/civilrights/labor-standards

Just don't expect to get your back pay immediately. There will be an intake interview, Orr says, and then the case may be assigned to one of the agency's staff investigators for fact-finding.

'We'll be getting out compliance information to employers,' Orr added. 'They should have postings up about the new [minimum wage] law. We'll also be doing community outreach to inform people of their rights.

'And we'll give some grants to community organizations, for them to help with outreach and enforcement.'

Orr says his office will pay particular attention to industries that typically employ low-wage workers, and especially 'racial and ethnic minorities, or workers who occupy multiple marginalized identity categories.'

'Some businesses may want more time to get up to speed, some may want more 'outs,' but I feel really strongly about these ordinances,' Orr said. 'There's a difference between egregious violations and an employer just being ignorant of the law - but it's a really fine line.

'If people have been shorted, I want them to know the City will make sure they get their wages back.'

An unexpected happening
For Orr, the appointment by Murray - who he did not know at all before being selected - parallels his entry into the Obama administration.

'It was an unexpected happening,' he says of his appointment by President Obama. 'I came in [to the Obama administration] by an unusual route, not as a political appointee. I was one of the lucky folks. It was an honor and an adventure. It changed my life.'

Orr served in the Labor Department for over five years, including two years as chief of staff for the Office of Disability Employment Policy. He believes the experience will help him run the Office of Labor Standards in Seattle. 'I actually did a lot of regulatory work,' he tells SGN. 'We were working off a historic new law - Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. The problem was balancing the needs of people with disabilities and the needs of business - not to ask too much [of the businesses], but to achieve what we needed to achieve.

'It taught me how to work with all the interests, and that's what this [Seattle] job is going to require.'

Orr graduated from Seattle's Garfield High School, where he went by the name Lily. He remembers the time with some uneasiness.

'I've always been very involved in my community,' he recalls, 'so I was on the basketball team, in band, in the orchestra. I identified as Gay at the time, and I was trying to be out.

'It was a hard time. There were moments when I didn't feel supported. I had friends - other kids trying to be out, or some not out - and some of them attempted suicide.'

After high school, Orr graduated from Smith College, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts, and the University of Washington Law School.

Caitlyn Jenner
Orr also took some time to reflect on Caitlyn Jenner's very public coming out.

'She's in the headlines, and that's been good, it means visibility' he says. 'But she's a very important person, she's typically attractive as a woman, she's white - so she can't represent all the Trans community.

'It's a time when people still have negative feelings about the [Trans] community. Even though she got headlines, we can't just say 'OK, we're good' and move on. It's not all done just because we're in the news a lot.'

Orr added that he was 'excited about the challenge' of being a Trans man in a very public position.

'Meeting someone [who is Trans] and knowing someone makes a big difference. I'm going to focus on the work [of the Office of Labor Standards], and I hope people will know me as someone who is committed to making the laws work.'

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