Minimum-wage workers and their advocates packed a public hearing at Town Hall Seattle on Wednesday night to advocate for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the city.
The joint hearing before Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee and the Seattle City Council was the first opportunity for the public to weigh in on an issue that’s attracting national attention and will likely pit labor against business interests.
Seattle would become the first major city to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, if such a measure became law.
About 700 people, many wearing red T-shirts with “15” on the front, cheered calls to enact a pay increase in the city.
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Jason Harvey, who described himself as a Navy veteran and an eight-year Burger King employee, said he receives food stamps and goes to food banks to make ends meet.
He urged the committee members to not carve out exceptions to 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.”
Stephen Price, whose red T-shirt said “Raise the Minimum Wage” on the back, told committee members that 46 million people in the United States live in poverty.
“What we have is an historic moment. Seattle has an opportunity to say something about poverty. It’s a moral and a political question,” said Price.
But some small-business and restaurant owners questioned the impact of raising the minimum wage, with several saying they’d like to give their employees an increase but don’t know how they would pay for it. Their remarks were greeted with a smattering of applause from around the hall.
Jasmine Donovan, granddaughter of the founder of Seattle-based Dick’s Drive-In restaurants, said that if the minimum wage were raised to $15, the company’s labor costs would increase $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 said he owns a small business in Seattle, said 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 met three times since January and is expected to deliver a proposal to the City Council by April 30. It hasn’t yet addressed the issues of how quickly to raise pay, by how much and whether there would be any exemptions.
Washington state has the highest-in-the-nation minimum wage, $9.32 an hour.
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 short timeline to develop a minimum-wage proposal reflects the 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.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes