Minimum-wage workers, labor activists, employment attorneys and other supporters packed a public hearing at Town Hall Seattle on Wednesday night to push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
The hearing involved the Mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee and the Seattle City Council, marking the first – and historic – opportunity for the public to share its voice on an issue that’s captured national attention, and that is pitting labor against business interests. If the measure became law in Seattle, the city would become the first major urban center to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Nearly 700 people, many wearing red T-shirts with “15” printed boldly across the front, cheered calls to implement a pay increase in Seattle. Jason Harvey, a U.S. Navy veteran and worker at Burger King for 8 years now, stated that he’s dependent on food stamps and food banks in order to make ends meet.
Harvey urged the committee members to not create exemptions within a $15 minimum-wage measure. “If you pass this with 100 exceptions, you’re going to end up hurting people like me who need your help,” he explained.
Stephen Price, whose red T-shirt displayed a call to “Raise the Minimum Wage,” reminded committee members that over 46 million people in the United States live in poverty. “What we have is an historic moment,” he said. “Seattle has an opportunity to say something about poverty. It’s a moral and a political question,” said Price.
Yet small-businesses and restaurant owners called for a reconsideration of calls to raise the minimum wage; even though many stated that they’d like to pay their employees more, they don’t know how to pay for it. Those remarks were greeted with small pockets of applause from around the hall.
Jasmine Donovan, granddaughter of the founder of Seattle-based Dick’s Drive-In restaurants, claimed that a $15 minimum wage would increase company labor costs by $1.5 million.
“Raising prices would have to be our first response,” she said, adding, “Sadly, some of our benefits would have to be on the table, including 100 percent employer-paid health insurance for those working more than 24 hours a week.”
Rob Wilson, who owns a small business in Seattle, spoke with Seattle Worker’ Compensation attorneys to share his views, explaining that he’d like to see a minimum-wage increase that took into account tips and employee benefits. “We do support the idea of a raise in the minimum wage, but the solution we support is a pragmatic one,” Wilson said.
Giving companies credit for employee-benefit packages, including health care and tips is one idea that’s been raised by members of the mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee as an alternative to requiring a $15-an-hour minimum for all workers.
The committee, made up of community, labor and business leaders, has held three meetings since January, and journalists expect it to deliver a proposal to the City Council by April 30. The committee has yet to tackle details of how soon to raise pay, by how much, and whether there would be any exemptions.
At $9.32 an hour, Washington State currently boasts the highest minimum wage in the U.S.
The City Council formed its own select committee to examine the wage issue in advance of receiving any proposal from the mayor’s committee.
“We have a moment in Seattle where people are hungry to talk about income inequality and how it affects our city,” said Sally Clark, chair of the select committee, before the hearing.
The immediate timeline to draft a minimum-wage proposal indicates mounting pressure from activists, labor unions and new City Councilmember Kshama Sawant to adopt a higher-wage ordinance or face a citizens initiative that could appear on the November ballot.
A poll released in February by EMC Research of 800 likely Seattle voters found 68 percent support a $15 minimum wage. The poll was commissioned by a coalition of labor unions and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Calvin Priest, who wore a $15 Now T-shirt as he testified, said money put into the hands of workers would go back into the economy, which in turn would create more jobs.
“Passing the $15 minimum wage in Seattle would be a huge step forward and a fantastic example for the rest of the country to follow,” he said.