Voters in Tacoma will decide on two minimum-wage measures, one of which could immediately bump pay in the city to at least $15 an hour, which would be one of the highest minimum wages in the country.
Seattle and SeaTac played big roles in the movement to raise minimum wages in cities across the country.
Now Tacoma is stepping into the spotlight as voters on Election Day decide on two minimum-wage measures, including one that would immediately bump pay in the city to at least $15 an hour — one of the highest minimum wages in the country.
The dueling measures have split some of the support among those who want to see a minimum-wage increase, and some worry that having both on the ballot will confuse voters.
That first measure, known as Initiative 1 and placed on the ballot by activists, would require all Tacoma employers with at least $300,000 in annual gross revenue to pay no less than $15 an hour, with annual adjustments for inflation.
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If passed, Initiative 1 could take effect as early as December. Violations of the law would be a crime, unlike Seattle’s minimum-wage law, which specifies civil penalties.
The second measure, called Initiative 1B and put on the ballot by the Tacoma City Council, would require all employers, regardless of size, to phase in a minimum wage of $12 by 2018.
The first wage bump would be to $10.35 in February. Violations would incur civil penalties.
Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports the gradual, $12 measure because “$15 overnight is just too extreme.”
“In Tacoma, I’d like to think our economy is one of the best economies, but the reality is it doesn’t look like what Seattle’s is,” he said. “Our cost of living, everything else, is different than in Seattle. That’s where a compromise makes sense.”
But Sarah Morken, a volunteer with 15 Now Tacoma, the grass-roots group that gathered enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot, said $15 is the “minimum required for someone to sustain themselves in Tacoma and not have to rely on public services.”
Seattle’s minimum wage — which wouldn’t reach $15 until 2017 at the earliest and 2021 at the latest — has “nothing to do with the economic reality of living in Seattle,” Morken said. “It was a political decision. Seattle’s minimum wage should be more than $19 an hour for someone to afford rent and live there. $15 is a modest demand.”
What supporters of either initiative can’t predict is how voters will react to the way the issues are placed on the ballot, which some have described as confusing.
Voters are asked two questions:
First, should either of these minimum-wage measures become law — yes or no?
Second, regardless of the answer to the first question, if one of the measures is to become law, which should it be?
If a majority of voters choose “no” on Question 1, then neither initiative passes.
But if a majority chooses “yes” on Question 1, then whichever initiative gets the most votes passes.
The chamber’s Pierson is concerned that those who vote “no” on Question 1 won’t bother to choose which initiative they prefer, leaving a small number of people to ultimately decide which measure could become law.
Debbie Brese, owner of The Cloverleaf pizza restaurant in Tacoma, said she believes raising the minimum wage to $15 immediately “would close down a lot of businesses in Tacoma.”
Brese has 28 employees, a dozen of whom currently make minimum wage.
Going to $15 immediately, she said, means she would likely have to raise prices — something she’s worried will cause her to lose customers, many of whom are retirees.
She’d also have to consider, as a last resort, cutting employee benefits such as a matching IRA contribution and birthday bonuses, she said.
The $12 measure “I can live with,” she said.
Diane Tost-Knowles, who lives in Tacoma but works at a call center in Federal Way, says a wage bump to $15 might allow her to work in the city where she lives and shave time from her current two-hour daily commute.
“I want to have a job in Tacoma, but all the jobs in Tacoma pay very little or we don’t get a lot of hours,” said Tost-Knowles, who took the call-center job because it pays $11.25 an hour and has guaranteed minimum hours.
Unions stood back
Unlike the efforts in Seattle and SeaTac, in which unions were heavily involved in shaping and backing the laws, the $15 Tacoma effort was very grass roots, supporters say.
Volunteers with 15 Now Tacoma had asked the City Council to increase the minimum wage starting last October, said Morken. When that appeared to have no effect, 15 Now Tacoma started its initiative drive, she said.
Brenda Wiest, legislative-affairs coordinator for Teamsters Local 117, said that “although there were rank-and-file labor union members that were part of it (launching the initiative), there weren’t labor policy people sitting at the table when the policy was drafted.”
The $15 measure has the support of a number of unions, including Wiest’s Teamsters Local 117, as well as the Pierce County Central Labor Council. But the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU)’s Seattle-based Healthcare 775NW local, which played a strong role in Seattle’s and SeaTac’s minimum wage efforts, hasn’t taken a position on which of Tacoma’s minimum-wage measures it supports.
When it looked like the $15 initiative would qualify for the ballot, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland created a task force to craft an alternative.
That task force, with representatives from unions, businesses, nonprofits and community groups, came up with two proposals. One, supported by a majority of the task force, would have lifted pay to $15 an hour by 2024 at the latest. The other would have gotten to $12 by 2019.
The measure ultimately proposed by the mayor and approved by the City Council — $12 by 2018 — “left a lot of us trying to decide” which to support, said Wiest, who served on the task force.
Many didn’t feel $12 was enough, but also thought an immediate $15 could be a hardship for nonprofits, she said.
Washington state’s minimum wage is $9.47 an hour, currently the highest statewide minimum in the country. Seattle’s minimum wage is presently $11 an hour. SeaTac has the nation’s highest city minimum wage at $15.24 an hour, though that currently applies only to some 1,600 hospitality and transportation workers.