Politics of minimum wage, sick leave have some surprises

There's Republican interest in the measures, but some Democrats balked at raising the minimum wage last year.
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Rep. Jessyn Farrell

There's Republican interest in the measures, but some Democrats balked at raising the minimum wage last year.

Bills to create a $12 per hour minimum wage and mandatory sick leave for most workers are in motion in the Washington House and Senate.

Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, and Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, were expected to introduce twin Senate and House bills late Thursday to increase the state minimum wage in steps. Their proposal is to move to $10 an hour in 2016, $10.50 in 2017, $11 in 2018, and $12 in 2019.

Washington's minimum wage is now $9.47 an hour. Under the state's current system of annual increases based on living costs, the wage is projected to reach $9.69 an hour in 2016; $9.91 in 2017; $10.14 in 2018, and $10.37 in 2019.

"While raising the minimum wage is not a silver bullet in fighting income inequality, it is an important step," Farrell said. She noted that a single person earning minimum wage would earn roughly $19,000 a year, which is below the federal poverty level.

Meanwhile, another pair of bills was expected late Thursday from Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, and Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, to require businesses with more than four employees to provide sick leave for their workers. The amount of required sick leave would vary by the size of the company.

Habib and Jinkins' bill are modeled after a sick leave law in Seattle, where some businesses have raised objections. Their proposal calls for 40 hours leave annually for firms of five to 49 full-time equivalent employees; 56 hours annually for companies with 50 to 249 full-time employees, and 72 hours annually for corporations with at least 250 employees.

Habib noted when he went blind from cancer at the age of 8, his small business owner mother and father, who had sick leave, spent a lot of time with him. "There's no reason that your income level should determine when you can be there with your (sick) loved ones," Habib said.

The measures all could face challenging political odds. In 2014, Farrell introduced a bill to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2017. However, behind the scenes, Farrell could not gather the 50 Democrat votes to ensure passage on the House floor, in part because of fellow Democrats' qualms about the effects on small businesses.

Farrell said the new bills extend the phase-in period from three years to four years to give small businesses more time to prepare for the increases. She also noted than minimum wage increases have gains traction in Republican-dominated states such as Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and North Dakota. She contended that business interests would likely prefer to have the Legislature tackle the nuances of a wage increase rather than risk having voters approve a potential initiative.

The voting math is evolving in the Senate. At Thursday's press conference, new Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, who is considered friendly toward labor, said he supports the broad strokes of both the $12-per-hour minimum wage bills and the mandatory sick leave bills. Assuming he joined all 23 minority Democrats in voting for a $12 minimum wage, that would mean the measure would need to pick up only one more GOP Senate vote to pass the bill there.

However, an early and significant hurdle will be the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee, where Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, is chair. "We already have the highest minimum wage in the country," Baumgartner said Thursday. And the economy of much of Washington is not as good as Seattle's, he said.

The minimum wage in Idaho, roughly 30 miles from Spokane, is $7.25 an hour, roughly 30 miles from Spokane. "I know multiple small businesses and franchise owners who are barely keeping their heads above water," Baumgartner said. "I'm highly skeptical we'll move a $12 minimum wage out of Commerce & Labor," he added.

Baumgartner said, though, that he is willing to hold a hearing on the proposal to get the pros and cons on record.

Meanwhile, Habib said Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who is also considered labor-friendly, has agreed to support the sick leave bills. With Miloscia and 23 minority Democrats, that would mean the sick leave bill could have a 25-to-24 majority in the Republican-dominated Senate.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct a legislator's home district. For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8