Hundreds of employees at Burger King, Subway and Taco Del Mar restaurants walked off their jobs and into the streets May 30, demanding better wages.
The event, known as Strike Poverty, made a stark point. Fast-food wages are low; and rents are high.
An estimated 33,000 people work in Seattle’s fast-food restaurants, and most of them make the state’s minimum wage of $9.19 an hour. In order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle, a worker needs to earn $21.23 an hour for a 40-hour work week, according to the National Low Income Housing Alliance.
City leaders have said they heard workers and want to help. On July 11, Seattle City Councilmembers Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien will hold a brown-bag discussion at City Hall to discuss what Seattle can do to support the people who work in the city’s restaurants and coffee shops.
Labor activists say there are several ways Seattle could make life better for low-wage workers. Federal and state laws set minimum wages, but individual cities and counties can pass legislation locally to ensure that workers get fair treatment and better pay.
A handful of cities around the nation have set city minimum wages higher than what is required by state and federal laws. Others set living-wage standards for city-owned contractors or for certain segments of the workforce. Some have set up local enforcement offices to investigate businesses and hear complaints from workers who were not paid for the hours they put in.
Tsedeye Gebreselassie, an attorney working for the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for minimum-wage workers, said the city should do more to help.
Washington and 17 other states have set minimum wages higher than the federal standard, but it’s still not enough to afford to live in high-priced cities like Seattle.
“That’s still poverty wage and doesn’t allow workers to support themselves or their families without relying on taxpayer-funded programs like food stamps,” Gebreselassie said.
Washington has the highest state minimum wage, but the highest minimum wage in the country is in a city: San Francisco.
The San Francisco minimum wage is $10.55, more than $1 higher than Washington’s minimum wage and $4 higher than the federal minimum wage. The city passed its own minimum wage in 2004, which increases each year with inflation.
Since then, San Jose, Calif., and Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., have followed suit.
Wage advocates are increasingly interested in city-based minimum wages, Gebreselassie said, as people become impatient with Congress.
There is a proposed federal minimum wage bill in Congress, but “that’s going to be a slow and hard road,” she said.
“The next option is cities,” she added, “especially cities where you have more elected officials that are in favor of raising the minimum wage.”
Business groups have opposed raising the minimum wage in cities, arguing that companies will flee for nearby jurisdictions. But according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, that hasn’t been the case.
The 2011 study examined minimum wages in San Francisco, Santa Fe and Washington, D.C. and found that it did not push workers and businesses into the suburbs.
More than 120 cities have established living wages for specific types of industries or for city-based contracts. Bellingham, for example, requires its contracts to pay a living wage for city work.
SeaTac’s city council is considering a proposal July 23 that would set a $15 minimum wage for hospitality workers at businesses linked to Sea-Tac Airport. (“Campaign aims to enact $15-an-hour minimum wage for hospitality workers in city of SeaTac,” RC, June 19.)
The law would apply to people working for any company at Sea-Tac Airport and other surrounding businesses that rely on the airport, such as hotels, car rentals and parking lots.
The SeaTac City Council must vote to accept the proposal or send it to voters to decide. If accepted, it would bring Sea-Tac Airport wages to the level of other international airports on the West Coast.
Employees at airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose and Oakland make between $12.43 and $15.37 an hour, per minimum wage laws enacted in those cities.
Laws can help improve wages, but enforcement is critical, said Rebecca Smith, a National Employment Law Project attorney from Seattle.
“One of the problems is that most city governments are not set up to enforce wage standards,” Smith said.
Bellingham City Councilmember Terry Bornemann helped pass Bellingham’s living wage law in 2002. By 2007, city records showed that the law was not working. Just four contracts out of more than 1,000 were following the law.
Bornemann said that the law sent a message, even if it didn’t work: “Symbolically it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Enforcement of such laws has been an issue in Seattle, too. In 2011, the city council passed a law banning wage theft, which is when employers don’t compensate employees for working off the clock or they withhold paychecks.
But Seattle’s law is only enforced when someone complains, and some say that it doesn’t do enough to protect workers.
Smith, of the National Employment Law Project, believes Seattle needs a city department to investigate and enforce wage laws. San Francisco set one up after it established a city minimum wage in 2004.
“We have a really great wage theft law, but we haven’t seen it enforced yet,” said Sage Wilson, spokesperson for Working Washington, a labor-backed nonprofit.
Among the issues Seattle could address, City Councilmember Nick Licata is most interested in working on wage theft. He questioned whether Seattle would be successful in setting a higher minimum wage when Washington already has the highest state minimum wage in the nation. It will be easier, he said, to look at improving existing laws.
“My interest is in revisiting the legislation we have on the books to tighten it up and make sure it’s being enforced,” he said.