Debate over proposed Seattle minimum wage heats up in first public forum
Seattle could be the first city in the nation to implement a $15-an-hour minimum wage in what would amount to a 60 percent increase from the current Washington state hourly minimum of $9.32, already the highest in the nation.
“What we have in front of us is a historic moment,” said Stephen Price, who spoke at a recent public forum on the minimum wage and income inequality. “Seattle has the opportunity to begin to say something about poverty.”
Community members who attended the event at Town Hall March 5 were allotted two minutes each to speak. They spent four hours debating Seattle’s proposed minimum wage hike in front of a panel of city councilmembers and members of a minimum wage committee convened by Mayor Ed Murray.
Many people came to offer their own story of hardship as support for a “living” wage. Fast-food workers, single moms and students grappling with debt were among those who demanded the immediate installation of a $15-an-hour minimum wage without exceptions.
Members of the advocacy group 15Now were a dominant presence in the raucous crowd that gathered. Their bright red
T-shirts and the signs they handed out bore slogans like “End poverty wages” and “Because the rent won’t wait.”
Other groups supporting the Fight for 15 movement, including Socialist Now, Workers Washington and Good Jobs Seattle, were also well-represented by passionate speakers that received high-fives and hugs on the way back to their seats.
Those with opposing viewpoints spoke out, too, but were not well-received in a room where the presence of the majority was overpowering.
There was considerable aggression toward the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and corporations such as Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks. Socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant drew cheers and applause from the crowd.
Small businesses and restaurant owners largely emphasized the need for a “pragmatic” approach, supporting a slower rise in wages. They warned that they may have to lay off workers or close if the minimum wage becomes $15 an hour.
They are seeking exceptions that could accompany an increased minimum wage, including a training wage that would phase workers into the $15-an-hour minimum or a tip penalty that would allow tipped workers to be paid less than the minimum wage.
Others dismissed this approach as unnecessary and overly cautious, saying $15 an hour would still be insufficient to meet the costs of living in Seattle.
“We are not asking for big yachts,” said one speaker.
He said the raise in the minimum wage would help him meet his basic needs and pursue the American dream.
Advocates argued that putting money in workers’ pockets would benefit the whole economy, increasing spending and creating demand and jobs.
Seattle Human Services Coalition (SHSC) issued an advisory on Feb. 11 describing the effect the minimum wage would have on human services.
The advisory states that the coalition supports the $15-an-hour minimum wage. But the coalition is concerned that with fixed funding and the inability to make up differences in labor costs, nonprofits will instead have to cut the services they provide.
Reports from the 29 organizations in the coalition indicate that meal services, shelter beds and other programs are in danger. Cuts in services would impact the low-income families, youth, mentally ill and homeless people SHSC organizations serve.
In one example, Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), currently employs a total of 520 workers.
Of these workers, 121 make less than $15 dollars an hour. Raising the minimum wage would cost DESC $1.25-$1.35 million in additional expenses, said executive director Bill Hobson.
In an interview, Hobson said it would fall to government entities to offset these costs.
“I absolutely do not want human services workers exempted,” said Hobson. “I want the task force under Mayor Murray to go into this with open eyes.”
Councilmember Sally Clark, who chaired the forum at Town Hall, said that the mayor will likely present legislation on the minimum wage to the city council by late April.
Clark also provided future dates for public involvement. The first lunch discussion, on March 18, is a chance for advocacy groups to present their research. The following session will focus on the restaurant industry.
The city council will also hold a briefing on March 21, describing the laws that govern minimum wage and defining what Clark called, “activism under jurisdiction.”
A minimum wage symposium will be held on March 27 at Seattle University with presentations by national experts and group discussions.
More public forums are planned. There is also an online town hall: incomeinequality.mindmixer.com
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