Halfway to the April 30 deadline to make a recommendation about raising Seattle’s minimum wage, both labor and business leaders express frustration at the slow pace of Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee.
A facilitator recently was brought in to help direct and focus discussions among the 23 committee members meeting since January. Researchers at two universities tasked with analyzing the potential economic impacts of a wage hike didn’t start their work until mid-February and have just four weeks to produce their reports.
Last week, a coalition of Seattle social-service providers warned that they would need $11 million in additional government funding if they were to pay all their workers $15 an hour.
Their concerns joined those of a number of small-business owners, questioning how they will afford higher salaries for their staffs.
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With the advisory group and the Seattle City Council holding its first public hearing on the potential increase Wednesday, participants say they haven’t yet addressed the hardest issues of how much, how soon and who, if anyone, will be exempt.
“I don’t feel that the committee is committed to the mayor’s goal of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour,” said David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council. “If the mayor says raise the minimum wage, then raise the minimum wage.”
The mayor’s task force met twice in January and once in February, with two of five subcommittees doing public outreach.
Murray asked that the committee’s meetings not be open to the public, so that participants can develop an understanding of the issues and trust among each other before tackling the most divisive questions.
As an advisory committee, the panel is exempt from the open-public-meetings act.
The co-chairmen, SEIU President David Rolf and Seattle businessman Howard Wright III, call the pace deliberative and inclusive rather than slow.
And, they say, the debate is about to get a lot more substantive.
“The mayor’s goal was to make sure this was a well-researched, deliberative process,” said Wright, chairman and CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, which has interest in several Seattle hotels and restaurants and whose family owns the Space Needle.
“We think we can get to a recommendation that is mostly acceptable to most of the people on the committee,” Wright said.
Rolf, whose union was the driving force behind the successful $15 minimum- wage ordinance in SeaTac, said the pace is designed to give all committee members a foundation of facts about who now earns a minimum wage, in what sectors, and what the likely impacts will be.
“Our goal was to not get into positional bargaining early,” said Rolf, who is trying to balance his labor colleagues’ impatience to quickly adopt a $15-per-hour minimum in the city with businesses’ concerns about the costs and impacts.
Murray remains confident the group will reach consensus and send a proposal to the City Council by May 1.
The council must approve raising Seattle wages above the state minimum of $9.32 per hour.
“We’re on track,” Murray said. “The expectation isn’t that we reach agreement right away — this process is all about building momentum and building consensus. I have full confidence in this group’s ability to provide a set of recommendations to me by the proposed deadline.”
The go-slow approach has won praise from some wary business advocates who say that, unlike with the SeaTac measure, they have a seat at the table to help shape the Seattle plan.
“We’re hopeful,” said Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Restaurant Association, which was part of the business coalition that opposed the SeaTac measure.
“We’re trying to find a way to get to the mayor’s goal and have it work for small business.”
Murray announced the formation of the task force in December, before he even took office, serving notice that his campaign pledge to move the city to a $15 minimum during his term was one of his top priorities. He also issued an executive order to raise all city employees to $15 an hour, a move estimated to cost about $1 million a year.
He was spurred also by the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the City Council and her vow to launch an initiative campaign for a November ballot measure if the committee hasn’t made sufficient progress by the end of April. She’s part of a Seattle campaign organized by labor, fast-food workers and others that’s voiced its urgency in its name, $15now.org.
One of the biggest questions facing the committee is whether or not a $15 minimum-wage ordinance would be phased in. Participants say they will also have to decide if some businesses would be exempt, for example, those with fewer than 10 employees or nonprofit organizations.
Committee members have been briefed in general on Seattle’s minimum-wage workers. Many commute from other areas. They exist in all sectors but account for 82 percent of workers in the food and hospitality industry, according to a consultant’s report.
The National Women’s Law Center estimates that women make up about three-fifths of minimum-wage workers in the state. Seattle figures aren’t yet known.
And a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis on the effects of raising the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour found that while 16.5 million U.S. workers would have higher earnings, about half a million would lose their jobs.
Labor leaders and some City Council members say they’d like to see Murray’s committee develop a relatively simple bill with few exemptions.
Sawant said that, given businesses’ intense resistance to the SeaTac measure, she expects strong, though less-visible opposition to the Seattle effort, as well. She noted that a recent poll, commissioned by local labor unions and minimum-wage activists, found strong support for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle.
““They’ve lost the public debate. They’re not going to say they’re against $15,” said Sawant, a member of Murray’s committee. “But will it be $15 in name only, with so many exemptions and carve-outs that it starts looking like Swiss cheese?”
Councilmember Nick Licata said he also prefers a straightforward proposal but is open to a phase-in that allows businesses, particularly small and nonprofit organizations, time to adjust to the change.
Both committee co-chairmen say they prefer an uncomplicated measure, but that some exceptions may be reasonable.
“I think there’s a beauty in simplicity,” said Rolf. “The state minimum-wage law is not complex.” But he also said that in more than 100 jurisdictions around the country that have adopted living-wage laws, “it’s a reasonably common feature to have a differential between jobs with health-care benefits and those without benefits.”
Wright, a former commercial-airline pilot and union member before joining the family business 10 years ago, said, “My hope, also, is that we can adopt something that’s simple.”
But, based on what he saw as the shortcomings in the SeaTac measure, Wright argues for a measure that is phased in, that takes account of total compensation including benefits, and that does not exempt workers represented by unions, as the SeaTac initiative did.
Wright said he recognizes that the hospitality industry, including the state restaurant association, was an active opponent of the SeaTac measure. He noted there are five hotel and restaurant representatives on the Income Inequality committee and said they’ve been “good listeners” to the discussions so far.
“I have not seen evidence of a knee-jerk, hell-no response,” he said.
In addition to the hospitality industry, the panel includes representatives of labor and low-income advocate organizations, large and small businesses, as well as nonprofit and civic groups such as the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.
King County Labor Council director Freiboth questions how the city would document the value of every business benefits package. And he asks how benefits help a low-income worker buy groceries or pay the rent.
He sees the talk about total compensation as a way for the hospitality industry to get around the $15-an-hour goal.
“If we’re going to address wage inequality, there’s going to be some stress on business,” Freiboth said.
Lynn Thompson: email@example.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes