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Minimum wage in Washington: Enough to make it?

A demonstration in favor of the $15 minimum wage adopted in Seattle. Credit: John Stang

More Washington families are falling behind in making enough money to pay their basic living costs.

"We're finding that people aren't just making ends meet," Ben Henry, senior policy associate for the Alliance For A Just Society, told the Washington House's Labor & Workforce Development Committee on Thursday. Several experts briefed the committee on how wages have not been increasing enough to keep up with the rising cost-of-living in Washington.

"Inflation is not keeping up with real costs," said Liza Manzer of the University of Washington Center for Women's Welfare.

The federal poverty level for a family of four is $23,450. The annual income needed for the basic living needs of a family of two adults, one school-age child and one pre-school child varies from county to county in Washington. In Thurston County, this self-sufficiency level is $52,208 annually for that size family. The self-sufficiency levels also vary based on the size and makeup of a family.

In 2007, 8 percent of Washingtonians lived below the federal poverty level, while 19 percent were in households earning less than what their family needed to meet its basic needs, Manzer said. In 2013, the percentage of Washington residents living below the federal poverty level had grown to 11percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of people in families not earning enough to be self-sufficient grew to 27 percent of the state's residents.

A single person working full-time at minimum wage in Washington — $9.32 an hour — is above the federal poverty level, but below the self-sufficiency level in Washington, Manzer said. The median income of a Washington family of two adults, one school-age child and one pre-school child grew from $27,355 in 2001 to $33,149 in 2014. A family of two adults and two kids would have to work about 100 hours a week at minimum wage to meet self-sufficiency, said Lori Pfingst of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center.

A House bill to raise Washington's minimum wage to $12 an hour died in committee during the last legislative session, but is expected to be revived in the 2015 session.

Geography is also a factor.

A family of two adults with one school-age child and one-preschool child needs to earn $5,828 a month in western Snohomish County to be self-sufficient. That's almost $70,000 a year. Meanwhile, the same family living in Spokane County would need to earn $4,461 a month — roughly $53,500 a year.

Race is in the picture as well. Sixty-six percent of Washington's white residents are in homes able to meet basic needs with what they earn. That number drops to 56 percent for people of color — including 55 percent for black Washingtonians and 36 percent for Latino residents.

David Burroughs, vice chairman for Seattle-based outdoors living-equipment maker Cascade Designs, told the committee that the state's manufacturers are competing with companies outside of Washington and outside of the United States, as opposed to the state's service businesses that compete with each under a more unified set of wages. Burroughs said Cascade Designs competes with Taiwanese firms paying $3.85 an hour to their bottom-level workers, and Chinese companies, which pay $2 an hour to their lowest employees.

The minimum wage matter plus other unrelated issues have led to Cascade Designs — employing 450 people in Seattle SoDo area — being courted by other states, he said. Washington state's minimum wage has consistently been the highest in the nation or very close to it since the start of the 2000s. The District of Columbia is the highest at $9.50 per hour this year.

Bob Beckett of the Washington Restaurant Association said the group does not oppose changing Washington's minimum wage, but added that in-depth conversations are needed to tackle numerous wrinkles statewide. A youth training wage — which was in a Republican bill that died in a Senate committee last session — could be considered again, he said. The disparity between workers receiving tips and those not receiving tips needs to be addressed. Plus, differences in medical benefits must be factored in, he said.

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