by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced on April 24 that his Income Inequality Advisory Committee was 'close' to reaching an agreement on how to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Accompanied by the co-chairs of the committee, David Rolf of SEIU 775NW (Service Employees International Union) and developer Howard Wright of the Seattle Hospitality Group, Murray told reporters that the committee was 'working right now as we speak' to hammer out a deal.
'A majority of the committee has agreed,' Murray said, but he was keeping negotiations open in hopes of getting unanimous agreement on a plan, or at least a 'supermajority.'
The main features that have been agreed to, Murray said, are:
o A $15 per hour minimum 'with no other additions.'
o 'Recognizing there are particular problems for small businesses' in reaching this wage.
o The minimum wage will be phased in over a period of years.
o After the first year, the minimum wage will be linked to CPI (the Consumer Price Index), so that it will increase automatically as prices increase.
o 'There will be no exemptions' or carve-outs for particular kinds of businesses.
o The city will establish enforcement mechanisms.
o Some benefits for some workers will be counted toward the minimum initially, but that system will be phased out as the minimum wage is phased in.
The Mayor declined to offer more details, saying those are 'still on the table.'
'In general the issue is that folks are struggling with their own membership organizations,' Murray explained. Both labor and business leaders are working to get buy-in from their own constituencies, he added.
Negotiations have been hard-fought, Murray said, but all committee members remained committed to reaching agreement.
'No one walked out - much to my surprise,' he grinned. 'Some people walked out of the room, but they always walked back in.'
In response to a question, Murray said he would not ask the City Council for an up-or-down vote on the final proposal. 'They need to do their Council process,' he said.
Labor rallies for $15
The day before Murray's press conference some 300 people, mobilized mainly by labor unions and their allies, formed a human chain around City Hall to dramatize their demands for a $15 an hour wages with no exceptions or carve-outs.
At a brief rally before surrounding City Hall, several workers explained why a $15 wage would benefit them and their families.
Tobias Bouchor, who works at Bartell's, said his current wage of $13 per hour is not sufficient for him to 'support my family and me.'
'My mom and dad rely on me' for financial support, he explained. 'My mom is on SSI, and she needed $300 for new glasses. That's a huge amount of money for me.
'[A minimum wage increase] needs to happen and it needs to happen now!'
Julie Dipatha, a McDonald's worker revealed she has been homeless for the past five years, even though she has been employed for the last three. Her wages simply are not enough to buy food for herself and her daughter and still put aside money to rent a small apartment.
'My daughter doesn't have any idea what it's like to have her own bedroom,' she said.
Christopher Moorehead added that he works for a downtown emergency shelter for $11.68 an hour, which 'isn't enough to provide stable housing for me and my family.'
Union workers in the crowd told SGN that - contrary to popular belief - their unions had many members who made less than $15 per hour.
David McDonald of ATU 587 (Amalgamated Transit Union) said that although bus drivers all make more than $15, 'para-transit workers - not Metro employees - make only $13. And it's tough, tough work. Their riders are often severely mentally ill. So it's an immediate issue for us.'
Robby Stern, president of PSARA (Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action) said retirees were interested in the minimum wage issue 'for our children and grandchildren.'
'There's a devastating gap between the rich and the poor in this country, and it hurts everybody,' he added.
'And many seniors work at minimum wage jobs,' PSARA vice president Susan Levy added. 'I don't know how many of our members are working, but many people just don't have enough retirement income. And with the decline of defined-benefits pensions, we're probably going to see more and more of that.'
Small businesses debate
At Murray's April 24 press conference, about ten members of the Ethnic Community Coalition held signs saying 'Our immigrant voices need to be heard' and 'Save immigrant jobs and businesses.'
The coalition says it is composed of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the King County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Seattle Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, and the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Washington State.
David Leong, a restaurant owner, told SGN that he employs five to fifteen people, with starting pay at $10 per hour. 'If they turn out to be good, motivated employees, I raise that pretty quickly,' he explained, 'to $11 or maybe $12 an hour.'
'The process seems rushed,' he complained. 'Why change everything right now? Things like this could take a couple of years to negotiate.'
On the other hand, Bob Barnes, who operates a staging and sound company - he supplied mics and staging for the labor rally at City Hall - is strongly in support of a $15 minimum wage.
'The impact for me will be nil,' he told SGN, 'because we already pay our people significantly over $15. We have a commitment to pay our workers a living wage.'
Barnes says he does not make as much money as some of his competitors, but he is able to pay his bills and has been in business for decades.
'Focusing on small businesses and the potential impact of a higher minimum wage is not really looking in the right direction,' he explained. 'To tell the truth, small businesses come and go, for many reasons - you don't really know how to do the business you picked, you opened in a bad location, your grandma's soup recipe isn't really that good - it might have nothing to do with how much or how little you pay.
'That sounds harsh, but that's how I feel about,' he concluded.
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