The Washington Farm Bureau says it hasn't really lost a lawsuit against the state's minimum-wage increase. But that's a technicality, labor opponents say. On Dec. 29, a judge ruled in the state's favor, allowing the Department of Labor and Industries to increase the wage as planned on Jan. 1, 2011, from $8.55 to $8.67 an hour.
The farm bureau, the Washington Retail Association and the Washington Restaurant Association filed suit to stop the increase, arguing that inflation hasn't caught up to pre-recession levels. In 1998, Washington state voters passed an initiative to raise the minimum wage whenever the Consumer Price Index for urban workers goes up in the preceding year ("Agribusness fights minimum wage increase," RC, Dec. 22-28).
In the Dec. 29 hearing, business groups had hoped for a quick, affirmative ruling from a judge in rural Kittitas County, where the suit was filed. But Judge Scott Sparks' dismissal of their summary judgment motion doesn't mean the lawsuit is over, said John Stuhlmiller, the farm bureau's director of government relations.
To get a final ruling that the groups could then appeal, they could continue pursuing the case. The coalition plans to discuss that, Stuhlmiller said. But, "It takes money to move a lawsuit along," he said. "Who wants to throw away $50,000? Nobody."
Prior to making his ruling, Sparks noted difficulties in how the statute is written, Stuhlmiller said. But the judge was clear there's no ambiguity on when to raise the minimum wage, said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, which authored the initiative.
If the rate of inflation goes up, so does the minimum wage, Johnson said.
"If I had to bet, I'm thinking they're not going to appeal," he said, because "it would be the same decision as Judge Sparks made."