This afternoon, the city council debated potential amendments (which we reported on in yesterday's Jolt and this morning's Fizz) to legislation proposed by Mayor Ed Murray's Income Inequality Advisory Committee proposal to increase the city minimum wage to $15 an hour, on a tiered schedule, over several years.
Although the council will probably postpone a proposed meeting next week to discuss the proposals, which were included as potential amendments by city council central staff today, until at least May 29 to give council members more time to look over the details, the battle lines today were pretty clear.
On the left: Council members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata, who oppose changes to Mayor Ed Murray's proposed $15 legislation (and, at least in Sawant's case, want to adopt new amendments to make the proposal more friendly to labor.)
On the right, or at least the right by Seattle standards: Council president Tim Burgess and council member Tom Rasmussen, who indicated today that they support some concessions that have long been sought by business, including a sub-minimum "training wage" and a slower phase-in period for big nonprofits, like the Gates Foundation, which have argued that they will face a harship if they only have three years to start paying $15 an hour (or four years if their business relies on tips or provides other benefits, such as health care).
Given that the basic parameters of the discussion are well known (a faster phase-in and fewer exemptions vs. a slower phase-in and more exemptions), here were some of the more surprising highlights of today's meeting:
1) Franchisees turned out in force, arguing that their business are actually "small businesses," with a few employees, as opposed to the corporate behemoths council members like Sawant have described them as.
For example, one Subway franchise owner noted that he only employs a dozen workers for his three downtown Seattle Subway locations, and that franchisees "don’t have money just flowing from higher places. When the refrigerator breaks or the ice machine breaks, I have to figure out why it’s not working and fix it."
City council member Tom Rasmussen, echoing franchise owners, argued that a franchise isn't the same thing as a corporate behemoth like McDonald's or Wal-Mart, while Kshama Sawant made the case that "these are big businesses" by definition because franchise fees often top $750,000, meaning that the franchise owners are "very, very wealthy."
Licata echoed Sawant's sentiments, arguing that people who choose to buy in to franchises have chosen to "contribute to the corporate profits, so there has to be a decision where the corporation has to decide whether to change their model."
2) Council members debated a proposal to exclude or extend the phase-in period for a $15 minimum wage for so-called "micro-businesses," those with fewer than 10 employees, with Rasmussen and Sawant again on opposite sides of the discussion.
"I would hazard to say, 'Why should we hesitate to make things better in Seattle [by] explicitly including this as language?' Sawant said. "That is like a signal to businesses that don’t even want to pay the minimum wage that they don’t have to pay the minimum wag. Our goal should be to eliminate loopholes, not create new ones." She added that tiny businesses, like restaurants in the ID, are the very ones that rely on workers without a lot of money to support them, so putting more money in those workers' pockets should help those businesses to stay afloat.
3) The issue of a so-called "training wage" lower than the new $15 minimum wage for new employees (either teens or, under one possible option, every new employee at any business) was also a hot topic."We do need to consider whether or not the increased minimum wage would make it more difficult for young people to be employed."—City council member Tom Rasmussen
Apparent supporters, including Rasmussen, argued that a subminimum wage would give teenage workers better opportunities ("We do need to consider whether or not the increased minimum wage would make it more difficult for young people to be employed," he said), while opponents like Sawant argued that lower starting wages make it much harder for "teenagers to have the best start in life" by limiting their wages to begin with (a common argument raised by those who note that women's starting salaries tend to be smaller than men's, even when they're just out of college, limiting their salaries throughout life).
4) And finally, the council discussed the thorny question of whether giant nonprofits, like the Gates Foundation and Swedish Hospital, should, like smaller nonprofits, be phased in to the new $15 minimum over a longer period.
Proponents of the longer phase-in argued that nonprofits' clients rely on their services, which aren't well-funded by the city, state, or federal governments (and that those clients shouldn't have to suffer from cuts that might result from pay increases for the nonprofits' employees); opponents argued that those groups are huge businesses that can afford to pay their workers a little bit better, and that, in Sawant's words, "we need to be talking about superfulous things the city is doing, like the waterfront beautification project" and excessive salaries for city department heads.