Offering few new details, incoming City Council member Kshama Sawant on Tuesday called for implementing a $15 per hour minimum wage in Seattle as soon as possible.
The newly elected Socialist's push for the wage increase has attracted national attention as cities around the country turn an eye toward income inequality. Mayor-elect Ed Murray has said that he favors raising the wage to $15 by the end of his four-year term.
“If by that he means that any legislation or any bill will be put in place at the end of four years from now,” Sawant said during a press conference at City Hall, “then I think that is too late.”
Sawant said, as she did throughout her campaign, that she would like to see the wage in place in 2014.
Murray is assembling a team to work on the city’s income inequality issues. He will announce the team members and his plans to address income inequality during a press conference on Thursday. Sawant said she would meet with the Mayor-elect later this week.
Washington’s minimum wage, at $9.19 per hour, is the highest mandated by any state, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. SeaTac narrowly passed a ballot measure in November that will up the minimum hourly wage in that city to $15 for some workers. Currently, San Francisco has the highest minimum wage for a city, $10.55 per hour; it is set to rise to $10.74 in January. The Washington D.C. City Council approved an $11.50 wage floor on Tuesday but it won't go into effect until 2016.
Among some of Seattle’s small business owners, rumblings about the wage increase are cause for concern.
“The 15 dollar piece is a big transition we’re talking about,” said Michael Wells, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. “If you do it overnight, you’re going to have a lot of freaked out small businesses.”
Wells used to own a Bailey/Coy Books in Capitol Hill and will serve on Murray’s income inequality team. While he supports discussing the wage increase, he said that policymakers should consider differences between business models and sizes. Among the possible factors: whether workers collect tips, the number of workers a business employs and the amount of revenue it earns.
“There’s a difference between Chipotle or Red Robin, and Rancho Bravo on Broadway,” Wells said, adding that it would’ve been tough for him to pay his bookstore employees $15 per hour. “I couldn’t pay people that kind of wage; it would have been terrifying.”
Sawant, pressed by reporters about the effect of a 63 percent wage increase on small businesses, said that paying employees isn't their biggest problem.
“We are living in the most regressive taxed state in the entire nation,” she said. “Small businesses are taxed far more than big business, small businesses also face skyrocketing costs of rent and the interest payments on their capital investments.”
“If we really want to protect small business jobs, it is not going to happen by not enacting 15 an hour,” she continued.
Asked if she would be open to some small businesses exemptions, Sawant said: “I can’t say at this point.”
Sawant said that she would release more specifics about her $15 minimum wage plans in early January. In the meantime, she said she is having discussions with labor groups, policy analysts, economists, community groups and workers.
“We are going to be releasing details very soon,” she added later. “It’s not something we want to come up with unilaterally.”
Sawant said that she and supporters of the $15 minimum wage will unveil a website in early January to act as a hub for supporters of the pay increase.
If upping the wage proves to be politically infeasible at City Hall, then Sawant said she would support turning it into a ballot initiative.
“In principle our bottom line is that all workers in Seattle come to something close to a living wage,” she said. “If our bottom line is not able to be met simply through discussions in the city government, then we need to be willing to take it to the people for a referendum.”
The Service Employees International Union 775NW vice president, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People representative, a fast food worker advocate, and a pastor joined Sawant and delivered remarks. Six supporters sported T-shirts and held signs that were bright red and emblazoned with a white “Fight for a $15/HR minimum wage” slogan set over a person raising a fist in the air. The T-shirts and image were a hallmark of Sawant's candidacy.
During the press conference, a supporter leaned a $15 minimum wage picket-style sign in front of the City of Seattle logo on a lectern (the sign later fell over). The event took place next to the Bertha Knight Landes Room, where a farewell event will be held Wednesday night for four-term councilman Richard Conlin, whom Sawant unseated.
The Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce executive director and Murray income inequality team member, Wells, said that working out the details of the wage increase would be a challenging but important task.
"This is not going to go away," he said.
"This is the moment to have this conversation," he added. "We’re going to have to get in there and work on it."