The Wild, Wild West

Pelosi's legacy: private business at the Presidio may be exempt from all state and local labor laws
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amanda@sfbg.com

As a production assistant for a visual effects studio, Robert Seeley had a job at the Orphanage that was nuts and bolts for the movie industry — handling paperwork, overseeing schedules, arranging deliveries, and making sure folks were fed, clients were happy, and many of the million little logistics for a film project were coordinated.

His days began with an hour-long commute from Pleasant Hill to the Presidio, where the Orphanage is based. Mornings started around 9, and the typical workday ran about 10 hours. Or it did when he started there, in July 2006.

"There was a snowball effect. It started out as a regular 10-hour workday. It slowly built to 12, then 16," Seeley told the Guardian.

At one point, Seeley charges, he was asked to work a 20-hour shift — and return to work two and a half hours later. When he didn't come in, he was fired.

Seeley sued, and the case was eventually settled. But along the way, the lawyers for the Orphanage raised a startling argument: since the Presidio is a federal enclave, they said, California labor law, which restricts the length of shifts, doesn't apply.

"This was a really straightforward, meat and potatoes case," Seeley's lawyer, Steve Sommers, told the Guardian. "And if he worked across the street, it would have been a slam dunk."

If the legal argument advanced by the studio as a response to Seeley's lawsuit is right — and some labor experts say it may very well be — then none of the private companies that lease space at the Presidio have to follow any state or local labor laws. That means no California or San Francisco minimum wage, no workplace safety statutes, nothing. And since state law is generally far tougher than federal law, the difference could be profound.

There are hundreds of people working for private companies in the Presidio, which operates under a unique arrangement that allows private, commercial development in a national park.

Federal regulations are almost always weaker than California's — and not necessarily improving. "Federal laws are evolving backwards for the most part," said Katie Quan, associate chair for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley. "There have been attempts to weaken benefits, Social Security, who can and can't join unions. Even the new minimum wage that's been passed — there's a big question as to whether or not [George W.] Bush will sign it."

While California's minimum wage is $7.50 and San Francisco's is $9.14, the federal hourly rate is currently $5.15 — and arguably the only one that applies in the Presidio.

Several employment lawyers contacted by us initially suggested that California's labor statutes would have to apply in the Presidio, but Chris Cannon, a lawyer familiar with the situation, did not.

"I've gotten a lot of people acquitted on a criminal basis applying that same validity," he said of the cases the Orphanage's lawyers used to back up their argument. "It's like a little piece of Nevada here in California."

Cannon has litigated several cases in the Presidio, most notably on the controversial issue of where and when dogs can be off leash.