A special committee of the Seattle City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a $15 minimum-wage ordinance, setting the stage for a historic vote Monday by the full council.
Council members agreed to delay the start date for the phased-in wage increase from Jan. 1 to April 1 to give businesses more time to plan for the change. They also voted to give the city discretion to set lower minimum wages for minors and for apprentice and training programs.
A standing-room-only crowd packed with union members, fast-food workers and 15 Now activists openly booed the adoption of what they considered business-friendly amendments and waved signs that said “McDonald’s Doesn’t Need a Phase-In” and “No Corporate Loopholes.”
But the crowd also cheered and applauded the final vote, recognizing that Seattle on Monday could become the first major city in the country to put all workers on a path to reach $15 an hour over the next seven years.
Even though several of her proposed amendments were voted down, including a speeded-up timeline to reach $15, Councilmember Kshama Sawant declared victory.
“Today is a historic day for low-wage workers, for the labor movement, and for anyone who believes, as I do, that no one who works should have to live in poverty,” Sawant said on the steps of City Hall after the committee vote.
Councilmember Sally Clark, who chaired the Select Committee on the Minimum Wage, said the amended proposal largely stuck to the compromise plan reached by Mayor Ed Murray’s committee of business, labor and community leaders after four months of negotiation.
“I think the question is whether the core principle of raising the $15 minimum wage will be achieved. It will be,” Clark said.
Several members of the mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee urged council members to not weaken their proposal. Pramila Jayapal, an immigrant-rights advocate and candidate for state Senate, called the mayor’s plan the result of “principled compromises and excruciating trade-offs.”
David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, was more blunt, saying the mayor’s committee would have adopted a training wage “over my dead body.” Murray added the youth-wage provision without the consent of the committee, saying it paralleled the state minimum-wage law.
Several owners of Subway franchises complained to the council that they were being treated as large businesses under the ordinance even though they ran a single store and had fewer than 10 employees.
“I’m not McDonald's. I’m not a wealthy franchiser. I’m not Subway. I pay them for the use of the name. That’s it,” said Matthew Hollek, who runs a Subway store in Ballard.
The ordinance requires businesses with more than 500 employees to start paying a $15 minimum in 2017, with an additional year to reach that level if they provide health care. Small businesses will have up to seven years to reach $15 and can count some tips and health-care benefits for up to 11 years. In all cases, workers would begin seeing raises in April.
Clark proposed the delay in the start date for the ordinance, saying there could be competing ballot measures that wouldn’t be decided until November, giving the city and businesses just two months to start paying a higher wage.
15 Now is gathering signatures for a charter amendment that imposes a Jan. 1 date for businesses with more than 250 workers to start paying $15 an hour and a three-year phase-in for smaller businesses.
Activists at Thursday’s hearing attempted to turn in to the City Council 10,000 signatures of the 30,000 they need to place the measure on the ballot.
When Clark told them the petitions needed to go to the City Clerk, the crowd started chanting, “What do we want? 15! When do we want it? Now!”
The amendment to delay the start date passed on a 4-3 vote, with Councilmembers Clark, Sally Bagshaw, Tim Burgess and Jean Godden voting yes and Sawant, Mike O’Brien and Bruce Harrell voting no.
Sawant also objected to allowing the city to set a lower minimum wage for minors and for training and apprentice programs. She said young people, particularly immigrants, are increasingly asked to help support their families and shouldn’t be paid less. She said lower youth wages also encourage businesses to skirt the higher wage requirements for adults.
But Harrell argued that teens would have a better chance to get a job if employers could offer them slightly lower wages. The training wage provision also passed 4-3, with Sawant, O’Brien and Bagshaw voting no.
Councilmembers Tom Rasmussen and Nick Licata were out of town and missed the committee vote. They are expected to be present Monday.
Council members voted to strengthen several enforcement provisions in the minimum-wage ordinance. It extended the length of time for workers to file wage complaints from six months to three years. And it set a penalty for businesses that violate the new law of up to $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second and $20,000 for subsequent violations.
Council members also approved a resolution calling for an audit of the new minimum-wage proposals after two and four years to determine the impacts on business, employment and compliance. The resolution also recommends the creation of a Minimum Wage Commission to oversee the implementation of the new law.