Democrats kicked off a big push Monday to try to get a minimum wage increase bill, a mandatory sick leave bill and a gender pay equalization bill out of a Republican-controlled Senate committee by a Wednesday deadline.
But the chairman of the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee appears to be a hard sell.
Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said he would have to discuss the three Democratic House bills with his own caucus before deciding whether to schedule any for changes and a vote on Wednesday. That's the deadline for the Legislature to move policy bills from the opposite chamber out of committee.
"I still have my concerns about the impacts on employment on this state," Baumgartner said after his committee held a public hearing on the bills Monday.
The three bills appear to have 24 votes in the Senate -- 23 minority Democrats and Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way. Each would need 25 votes to pass.
The bills' backers hope that some Republicans might join Democrats on these bills, where the highest profile belongs to legislation by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, to phase in a $12 an hour minimum wage by 2019.
Looming in the background has been public brainstorming by Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer about financing a 2016 initiative to create a $16 an hour minimum wage. That has generated speculation that the Republicans might prefer a nuanced, phased-in $12-an-hour minimum wage from the Legislature rather than a no-compromise initiative for a $16 an hour wage.
"If we don't have a debate on the (Senate) floor, we'll have the blunt instrument of the initiative," said Sen. Pramilla Jayapal, D-Seattle and point person for the $12 wage in the Senate.
Farrell and Jayapal noted that Republican-oriented Nebraska passed a minimum wage increase in a November initiative that moved the state from $7.25 an hour to $8 an hour this year, with a jump to $9 an hour in 2016. At the same time, predominantly Republican Alaska voters passed an initiative to raise that state's minimum wage from $7.75 an hour to $8.75 an hour this year and to $9.75 an hour in 2016. Washington's current minimum wage of $9.47 an hour is the highest in the nation.
There has been some behind-the-scenes debate in business and Republican circles about risking an initiative. One side believes a $16-an-hour minimum wage should not be risked. The other side wonders if a minimum wage ballot battle might draw millions of Democratic dollars away from Gov. Jay Inslee's likely re-election campaign.
Technically, five bills are in play, although they cover three topics. Here's the rundown:
- Minimum wage bills by Farrell, Sen. Steve Hobbs, D- Lake Stevens, and Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, were discussed Monday. Farrell's bill has widespread support and would increase the state minimum wage in steps. It is also the only one that has passed a chamber -- the Democratic-controlled House. That proposal is to move the wage to $10 an hour in 2016, $10.50 an hour in 2017, $11 an hour in 2018, $12 an hour in 2019. Introduced Monday, Hobbs' bill is mostly the same, but adds a $13-an-hour minimum wage in 2020 and would give breaks on the minimum wages to companies that provide health benefits. Introduced in January and stalled since then, Miloscia's bill is a slightly more aggressive version of Farrell's bill.
- A bill by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, would require mandatory sick leave of 40 hours annually for workers in 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. The bill would not cover firms of four or less employees.
- A bill by Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, would require employers to provide valid reasons — such as differences in education, training or experience — if employees challenge pay disparities between workers of the opposite sex for essentially the same work. The bill also would allow gender-based pay disputes to be taken to an administrative judge at the Washington Department of Labor & Industries. And the bill would also forbid employers from ordering workers not to disclose their salaries.
A few dozen people testified Monday on the bills, with slightly more than half supporting them. Supporters included service industry employees, small business owners and liberal economic organizations. Opponents consisted of small business owners, several members of the Association of Washington Business, plus some other business lobbying groups.
Supporters of the three bills talked about the difficulties of raising a family while earning minimum wage; the choice between losing pay, or working sick and infecting customers; and studies showing women being paid significantly less than men while doing the same jobs with the same qualifications. "I worry about I may go hungry. I worry about paying my rent," said Nick Powell, an Olive Garden server.
Molly Moon Neitzel, owner of six Seattle-area ice cream shops with 100 workers, praised Seattle's phasing in of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. "I'm happy that hundreds of thousands of Seattleites have more dollars to spend on ice cream," she said.
Opponents talked about all three bills putting extra financial burdens on small businesses, especially those bordering Oregon and Idaho with their lower minimum wages. JoReen Brinkman, a Pullman restaurant owner, said three other restaurant owners in her area told her that an increased minimum wage would put them out of business. A higher minimum wage could send her business, barely in the black, into the red, Brinkman said.
Farrell contended that no studies have been found that link an increase in minimum wages to a loss of jobs.
Baumgartner, whose committee is key to the future of the measures, was unimpressed by the threat of a $16-an-hour initiative. He said, "We should not be making policy down here because of a liberal billionaire with too much time on his hands."