Call for $15 minimum wage moves north to Seattle

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Exactly one month after SeaTac voters narrowly approved a $15 minimum wage for some workers, supporters of the effort will march from there to Seattle City Hall on Thursday to urge the city’s elected officials to quickly pass a similar measure.

Labor activists want to seize on the momentum of the SeaTac victory, along with the upset election to the Seattle City Council of socialist Kshama Sawant, who made securing a $15 minimum wage in the city a centerpiece of her grass-roots campaign.

The council has approved a $100,000 study of the minimum-wage issue to be led by Mayor-elect Ed Murray, who has promised to convene a group of business, labor and other stakeholders. But the study won’t be done until June, making a potential $15 minimum-wage ordinance unlikely before the end of 2014, at the soonest.

That timeline might not be fast enough for activists who believe they have the popular support to place an initiative on the ballot for a public vote by November.

“All indications are, if the council does not deal with this directly, it will be taken out of their hands,” said David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council.

Sawant said she plans to introduce a minimum-wage ordinance to the council as her first order of business in January and will try to create a council affordability committee. She supports Murray’s efforts to start a dialogue with labor and business but isn’t interested in a long process.

“I look forward to working with the City Council and the mayor to pass a $15-an-hour minimum-wage ordinance,” Sawant said. “However, if corporate resistance results in the ordinance getting watered down or not passing in 2014, then we will need to place an initiative on the 2014 ballot. Seattle’s average rent rose faster than any other city in the country last year. Workers simply can’t afford to wait any longer for $15 an hour.”

A majority of council members say they’re supportive of moving to a $15 minimum wage, but that a lot of questions need to be answered, including who would be affected, whether it would be phased in and whether it would apply to all types of businesses regardless of size.

“Who and what will be exempted; what size of businesses? The devil is going to be in the details,” said Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who proposed the study in the 2014 budget adopted in November.

The demands for a $15 minimum come amid widespread concern about income inequality and a lack of jobs that provide middle-class pay and benefits.

Murray seized on the issue last summer as fast-food workers nationwide called for a similar “living wage.” He said throughout his campaign that Seattle was quickly becoming a place where low-wage workers could not afford to live, and pledged a phased-in approach starting with city employees and extending to employees of national fast-food chains and retailers.

“I agree that the time is now and the need is urgent,” Murray said, “but we need to sit down with labor, business and employees.”

He pledged a decision by the end of 2014 and said he wants to avoid a ballot-measure campaign that, as in SeaTac, would be costly for both labor and business.

“The path I’m choosing acknowledges the urgency and avoids an ugly fight in an election year,” he Murray said.

Labor leaders who have a history of working with Murray when he was in the Legislature say they’re willing to collaborate on a minimum-wage measure, but, like Sawant, they don’t have endless patience.

If Murray and supporters are engaged in a serious process, “we want to be part of that process,” said David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Seattle-based health-care local 775.

But Rolf added, “If that should become an exercise in Seattle process, there are forces awake and alert to put something on the ballot.”

Harrell said city leaders hope to include the concerns of business in any minimum-wage proposal. Without that buy-in, he said, a ballot measure could attract well-funded foes and polarize voters. “I would think that if they [supporters] put it on the ballot, they run the risk of it being rejected.”

But Harrell said of the council’s role, “That doesn’t mean we do nothing.”

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said she supports moving toward a $15 minimum wage but echoed her colleagues’ concerns that there were unanswered questions. Should tips be considered a part of wages? Should apprenticeship programs that lead to good-paying jobs be forced to raise their starting pay?

She said key stakeholders need to help come up with the answers. “It’s important to have an inclusive conversation and bring labor and business along,” she said.

Councilmember Tim Burgess predicted the council would take up the issue quickly, but he also cautioned that a lot isn’t known about the scope of a Seattle measure. “Is it $15 and is it everybody? Do we phase it in over time?” And he asked, “How do we address this issue without disadvantaging the business community and their ability to compete with other businesses in the surrounding area?”

Because of the close vote on the SeaTac ordinance, King County election workers will recount the ballots Monday and certify the results Tuesday.

The SeaTac measure doesn’t affect all workers. It raises the hourly minimum wage to $15 for hospitality and transportation workers in and around the airport from the statewide minimum of $9.19.

It requires employers to offer part-time workers more hours before hiring additional part-timers or subcontractors. And it doesn’t apply to businesses with fewer than 10 nonmanagerial employees.

Tips aren’t included as part of the minimum-wage requirement, just as they aren’t under the state minimum-wage law.

The SeaTac ordinance is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1 but faces a legal challenge from some business groups.

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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