Washington Restaurant Association will now turn its efforts toward influencing state lawmakers during the 2016 legislative session.
In an indication of how much traction the minimum-wage movement has gained statewide, the Washington Restaurant Association, which has opposed immediate citywide minimum-wage hikes to $15, said Thursday it now actively supports raising the state’s minimum wage.
The announcement came two days after residents in Tacoma and Spokane voted on increasing the wage floor after successful battles in SeaTac and Seattle.
“Our state now has multiple different minimum wages with the likelihood of many more to come. It’s creating a checkerboard of wage laws that are difficult on everyone,” Anthony Anton, Washington Restaurant Association president and CEO, said in a news release. “We are looking for a positive statewide solution. Restaurants are calling for local and state lawmakers to join together to find an answer.”
The association is also looking to get out ahead of citizen efforts to raise the minimum wage in various cities.
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Anton, in a phone interview Thursday, acknowledged that preventing cities from enacting their own laws was “one of the puzzle pieces” that the association would be putting on the table as it advocates for a higher a statewide minimum wage.
Washington’s current minimum wage is $9.47, the highest in the nation. But next year several states will surpass that level.
Anton, and the restaurant group, did not specify what new minimum it would support.
Rather, Anton said that figure would come out of “what the pieces of the puzzle” are, including whether tips would be counted, whether training costs will be factored in, or whether the employer provides tuition assistance.
It’s a different tune for the association, which in the past has warned of dire consequences from increases in the state minimum wage and has sued to keep such an increase from happening. The associaiton remains a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the city of SeaTac’s power to impose its minimum-wage law, passed by voters in 2013, on Sea-Tac Airport. Hospitality and transportation workers in SeaTac now make at least $15.24 an hour.
More recently, after wage increases took hold in several cities, the restaurant group has said that it’s not necessarily opposed to the hikes but that it would rather see it be raised through the Legislature than by citizen initiative.
Anton said the association will now be devoting resources to lobbying, “looking to sit down with committee chairs and leaders” with the aim of coming up with a solution in the 2016 legislative session.
“Rather than talking about our fears, we’ll be moving forward,” Anton said. “Our tone will change.”
Working Washington, a union-backed advocacy group pushing for increased minimum wages, called it “an extraordinary development” that the restaurant association “has now been compelled to publicly support higher wages,” and “perhaps the strongest indicator yet of how much our state’s politics have changed since fast food workers first went on strike for $15 an hour.”
But “there are some key bits left out,” Working Washington said in its statement. “At the moment, all they’ve really made clear is that they support at least $9.48 an hour statewide, with maybe some loopholes and subminimum exceptions?”
Different markets, different economics
Getting to a minimum-wage increase that works statewide may be challenging.
“The cost of living is very, very different in Omak than in Bellevue. I think we all recognize that,” Anton said. “At the same time, our polling statewide — our customers are calling for a solution. They want increased compensation for workers.”
Sandra Bain, owner of the family-owned Magoo’s Restaurant in Omak, said: “I want everybody to make a good living. But it’s really difficult, especially in a small area like this.
“You have to pass that cost along to the consumer and it’s hard to do,” Bain said. “We’re in an economy here that is obviously much less than what Seattle’s is. You can’t up your prices as much in the smaller cities as you can in the larger cities.”
Bain employs six people, two of whom (dishwashers) make minimum wage. Servers share a percentage of their tips with them as well as others in the back of the house.
It’s too soon to say, without specifics, what effect a rise in the wages would have on her business, she said.
Chad Mackay, president and chief operating officer of El Gaucho Hospitality, which operates an El Gaucho restaurant in Bellevue, said a rise in the statewide minimum wage would not affect his workers.
Mackay, who serves on the board of the restaurant association, says his servers make minimum wage, though, with tips, they end up making $40 to $50 an hour.
He supports having the same minimum wage around the state “and not do it city by city. Because it’s patchwork.”
The restaurant association’s announcement came after Tuesday’s election, in which Tacoma residents defeated a citizen initiative to raise the minimum wage immediately to $15, and instead are approving a more gradual increase to $12 by 2018.
In Spokane, voters rejected an effort to require large employers to pay a “family wage” that some have estimated could range from $17 to $28 an hour.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Spokane Mayor David Condon joined the restaurant association’s call for the Legislature to take action on a statewide minimum wage.
Seattle’s minimum wage, as required by a law that took effect April 1, is $11 and will gradually move up to $15 by 2021 at the latest.