With the City Council considering a tax on employee hours or on payroll to help pay for affordable housing and homeless services, proponents are holding up Amazon as the prime example of a company that can afford to do more.
“Tax Bezos” and “Tax big business” read signs hoisted outside Amazon’s glass and steel Seattle Spheres Tuesday, as supporters of a new tax on large employers brought a political rally for the first time to the new heart of the tech giant’s urban campus.
Onlookers behind the tinted glass of an Amazon office tower used their cellphones to record the commotion from above. From below, the crowd of about 100 waved back.
With the City Council considering the tax on employee hours or on payroll to help pay for affordable housing and homeless services, proponents of the measure are holding up Amazon as the prime example of a company that can afford to do more.
“The tax we are demanding,” City Councilmember Kshama Sawant told the early-evening rally, “is pocket change for corporations like Amazon … Pocket change for these billionaires.”
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The council has yet to decide exactly which companies would be taxed and how.
But Amazon paid zero federal income tax last year, said Monica Cortes Viharo, an executive board member of UAW 4121, which represents student employees at the University of Washington. “Is that fair?” she shouted, citing analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. “No!”
Watching from the back of the crowd, software engineer Andrei Villasana shrugged.
“I don’t agree with them not paying taxes, but they can kind of do whatever they want,” Villasana said, suggesting a company as powerful as Amazon makes the rules.
“Maybe Amazon should create its own housing program,” he said. “They could do it with less bureaucracy.”
Logan Swan, a Local 86 ironworker, showed more enthusiasm. The rally was conveniently located for Swan, who recently helped build an Amazon office tower.
“Now I work up there,” he said, pointing to the top of a half-built high-rise at Lenora Street and Fourth Avenue. “But I can’t afford to live in Seattle anymore.”
Swan commutes from Des Moines, and partly due to housing costs, “other guys are coming from south of Tacoma and north of Everett.”
Meanwhile, “These incredibly profitable companies are paying no taxes,” he said.
Amazon is subject to various taxes, such as local property and business-and-occupation taxes. It paid $957 million in taxes worldwide in 2017, up from $412 million a year earlier.
The company recorded a one-time benefit of $789 million from the U.S. federal tax cut signed into law in December. That helped zero out Amazon’s estimate of its federal income-tax liability, with the company posting a net benefit of $137 million in 2017, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Amazon last year said it would include a rent-free, 47,000-square-foot homeless shelter in a new building scheduled to be completed in 2020.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and some other local employers spoke out against a new “tax on jobs” last month, when the City Council began considering a measure that would raise up to $75 million annually.
The city’s response to homelessness has been ineffective, and existing taxes paid by businesses — including Amazon — account already for more than half of Seattle’s general fund, they said.
But some small-business owners and artists have proclaimed support for a tax, as long as it targets only the city’s largest employers and as long as the money is used wisely. The chamber, of which Amazon is a member, shouldn’t use small businesses as a shield, the tax proponents wrote.
Council members plan to discuss the issue several times over the next few weeks, and a final vote could come next month.