Job hunting in Tukwila this spring, Arc Di found more than 30 possibilities within a few blocks of the city’s job hub, the Westfield Southcenter Mall. But only two were offering more than $15 an hour. 

Di knew that a few minutes away in SeaTac, employers were paying that city’s minimum wage of $17.54 for transportation and hospitality jobs. In Seattle, large businesses were paying at least $17.27. 

“There were a ton of jobs [in Tukwila] but nothing to incentivize workers to stay,” Di said.

A ballot measure before Tukwila voters in November’s election aims to bridge that gap and account for inflation.

Initiative Measure No. 1 would increase the city’s minimum wage to match SeaTac, requiring large employers to pay about $19 an hour starting next summer.

The measure is the latest effort to raise wages for workers as the cost of living skyrockets across Western Washington. At the state’s current $14.49 minimum wage, a minimum wage worker in King County would need to work 92 hours a week to avoid spending more than a third of their income on a one-bedroom apartment, according to one analysis.

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Even in a tight job market where many businesses have raised wages to attract more workers, supporters say many in Tukwila are still making the state minimum wage or slightly above.

“This is the bare minimum people need to stay alive,” said Di, who now makes $17 an hour working at a paint store near the mall. Rising costs, including a $300 rent hike, have squeezed their budget. A raise, Di said, “would be huge.”

“I’d be able to start putting my kid in some cheap classes like tumbling to help them develop their motor and social skills. I’d be able to breathe a little more, maybe actually put some money in savings,” Di said.

It’s not clear exactly how many workers might benefit from the higher wages, but shops in the mall alone employ scores of hourly workers. Supporters say higher pay would help workers of color in Tukwila, a diverse city of nearly 22,000 where about 70% of residents are people of color, according to census data.

In a sharp contrast to cutting-edge minimum wage campaigns in SeaTac and Seattle, the effort in Tukwila faces no organized opposition.

The proposal would take effect in July, requiring Tukwila employers with more than 500 employees globally (including franchises) to match SeaTac’s 2022 minimum wage, plus an inflation adjustment. 

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Smaller companies with between 15 and 500 employees would see a phased-in approach: The wage would be $2 less than the large employer rate starting in July, $1 less in 2024 and then would fully catch up in 2025. 

Under that structure, Tukwila’s largest companies would pay $18.99 next year, according to the campaign. 

That’s roughly in line with Seattle, where the minimum wage next year will be between $16.50 and $18.69 depending on the job, and SeaTac, which recently announced that its 2023 minimum wage for transportation and hospitality workers will be $19.06 per hour. That is a nearly 9% increase from this year and the highest in the nation as of early October, according to the city. (Tukwila’s inflation adjustment will be calculated differently than SeaTac’s, which is why the two city’s wages will be close but slightly different.)

The statewide minimum wage next year will be $15.74. 

Tukwila’s minimum wage would adjust for inflation each year. Tips would be additional and could not count toward the hourly rate. Companies would also be required to offer available work hours to qualified part-time employees before hiring additional workers.

The proposal would exempt businesses with fewer than 15 employees and less than $2 million in annual gross revenue. 

“There are lots of immigrant-owned small businesses, and we don’t want to have any adverse effect,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, the group organizing the ballot measure.

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With about a week left before ballots are due, no opposition committee has registered with the state. No one submitted an opposition statement to the voter guide.

That may be because in a tight labor market many Tukwila retailers are already paying the wages proposed in the ballot measure, said Mark Johnson, senior vice president of policy and government affairs at the Washington Retail Association. 

“When you’re trying to draw employees in … you’re going to have to pay them what they could make in a neighboring jurisdiction,” Johnson said.

Supporters say plenty of people are still making less. In an informal survey of 84 workers in and around the mall between November and February, the Transit Riders Union found more than half of workers said they made $15 or less and more than 70% said they made $16 or less.

Some businesses have raised wages since then, but “anecdotally, it’s just not true that everyone is already making $17.54,” Wilson said, referring to SeaTac’s current minimum wage.

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The retail association has questions about how the city will track and enforce the portion of the law about offering hours to current employees and plans to contact the city if the measure passes, Johnson said.

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Other business groups also have not mounted an opposition effort. The Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses in South King County cities including Tukwila, has not taken a position, said President Annie McGrath. 

Many businesses are already paying higher wages, “but for those that are not, this is going to be a really difficult cost to absorb,” McGrath said. Businesses are still recovering from the pandemic and shouldering rising costs, she said. 

In Tukwila, supporters are hoping for a wide margin of victory. 

Carrying an umbrella and a stack of informational door hangers, organizer Motuma Debela knocked on the door of a beige house on a rainy Friday afternoon. The resident who opened the door assured him she had already received the campaign’s colorful literature and she planned to return her ballot. 

“This is our third round” door-knocking these homes, Debela said. Tukwila’s small size makes that level of outreach possible: There are just 10,942 registered voters in the city, according to state data.

 “We’re pushing hard to get as much as we can, to make a huge turnout,” Debela said.

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Organizers hope a good showing could encourage similar measures in other smaller cities. They also hope to boost awareness of the proposal so that if it passes, workers know their rights to a higher wage and the city feels pressure to enforce it.

“If this law is going to be successful,” Wilson said, “people need to know about it.”

For more information about voting, ballot drop boxes, accessible voting and online ballots, contact your county elections office. Ballots must be postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 8, or put in a drop box or returned in person to your county elections department by 8 p.m. that day. Be sure to sign the ballot envelope.

For more information on your ballot, in any county, go to: myvote.wa.gov

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