It was one of the most boisterous Seattle City Council meetings… ever. Several hundred people packed into First Hill’s Great Hall Wednesday night for the first of a series of hearings on raising the minimum wage in Seattle.
The red-shirted masses of Kshama Sawant’s $15 Now campaign filled the 8th and Seneca auditorium waving signs and uproariously cheering on those who spoke in favor of a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Several Capitol Hill business owners were also in attendance, including many who have thus far waited to speak out in public on raising the minimum wage. CHS spoke with a handful of owners last week about ideas to smooth the ramp to a $15/hour minimum wage including phase-ins and a “total compensation” calculation.
Jasmine Donovan, whose grandfather founded Dick’s Drive-In, told the crowd and assembled City Council members an immediate $15 an hour wage increase would mean a $1.5 million cost to the burger business and an immediate rise in burger prices. She said the local burger chain would also have to drop some employee benefits.
Council members Jean Godden, Sawant, Nick Licata, Sally Clark and Mike O’Brien were on hand for the four-hour hearing. Mayor Ed Murray was not.
By the tally of the Sawant camp, supporters out-voiced those who oppose a $15 wage 7 to 1.
Several workers spoke, including one Capitol Hill woman who said she works at a downtown McDonald’s, a job she enjoys, but wished she were paid more to afford to go back to school.
“It’s hard to keep my spirits up when my pay is so low,” she said. “I hope you think of hardworking people like me when you vote on a $15 an hour minimum wage.”
Among speakers attending Wednesday night’s forum, there seemed to be little debate that the minimum wage should be raised. Many small business owners said they supported some type of wage increase, as long as it included calculations for tips and employee benefits. Tamara Murphy, owners of Terra Plata and Elliott Bay Cafe said layoffs would happen in restaurants across city if tip credits were not included in a new ordinance.
The City Council Committee on Minimum Wage and Income Inequality and the mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee sponsored the joint public hearing.
The mayor’s 25-member task force has an April 30th deadline to present Murray with a set of recommendations on raising the minimum wage. The meetings are closed to the public, and include representatives from small business and labor. You can learn more about the Income Inequality Advisory Committee here. The Mayor’s “Online Town Hall” on income inequality is also off to a rather quiet start at http://incomeinequality.mindmixer.com/
Sawant’s camp continues to prepare legislation that she has promised to present to Council in “early 2014.” $15 Now and other groups are also pushing forward on preparations for possible ballot initiatives to turn the decision over to voters should City Hall stumble in its progress to address the minimum wage issue.
A questionnaire of CHS readers showed considerable support for a measured implementation of a $15 an hour minimum wage, including phase-ins and accounting for “total compensation.” Here is how 50 respondents who said they owned businesses told us they viewed possible mitigations to protect small businesses as income inequality is addressed. Sawant, in the meantime, is keeping her cards close to her chest as the call for a phase-in appears to be gaining support.
- Angela Stowell, co-owner Capitol Hill’s Anchovies & Olives and other neighborhood Ethan Stowell eateries, said servers and bartenders in the Stowell restaurant family make upward of $30 an hour and asked for council members to include a tip credit in any minimum wage increase.
- The owner of Adventure Day Care Seattle, which employs six workers, said many friends have asked her how she’ll deal with a $15 an hour wage. “I’ll figure it out,” she said.
- A co-owner of The Confectional said an immediate $15 an hour wage increase would force the Broadway dessert shop to close and the company would need to lay off of half of their staff.
- David Rolf, president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, co-chaired the meeting as a representative from the mayor’s minimum wage task force.
- “People say its impossible to address poverty … really it’s a question if $15 goes to the workers … or if it goes to the owner,” said one $15 Now supporter.
- “We do support the idea … the solution we’re looking for is a pragmatic one,” said one restaurant worker.
- One man, who said he was a 8-year employee of Burger King and a Navy Vet, said “if you pass this with 100 exceptions, you’re going to end up hurting people like me who need your help.”
- “$15 an hour is a compromise,” said Patrick, a member of the Freedom Socialist Party and carpenter union member.
- One woman with the $15 Now campaign said raising the minimum wage was a women’s rights issue because of high poverty rates compared to men. “It’s absurd to think women can wait another 15 years” for a minimum wage increase.
- A representative from Belltown’s Icon Grill said “let’s continue to promote businesses that allow people to start at the bottom and work their way to the top.”
UPDATE: Mayor Murray released this statement about the forum:
“Cities are our true laboratories of democracy. The energy and appetite for experimental thinking, the enterprise to launch cutting-edge initiatives, the will to try novel ways of building and improving our communities – each of these is woven into our cities’ DNA, and this city’s DNA in particular.
There is no better example of Seattle’s energy, enterprise and will than our ongoing conversation about raising the minimum wage. While similar conversations are occurring throughout the country, this is an area where Seattle is in a great position to be national leader.
The passion we see around this issue out in the community is a passion shared by many in City Hall. We know it’s not a matter of if we will get to $15 per hour, but when and how we get there. I am personally passionate about the need to address this issue – an issue that President Obama has referred to as ‘the defining issue of our time.’ I’m just as passionate about the need to get it right, in a way that doesn’t burden our immigrant entrepreneurs in South Seattle, our small business owners in Lake City Way, our beloved neighborhood restaurants or our critical community non-profit partners.
I’m grateful to all who brought their voices, their ears and their passion to today’s joint public hearing between my Income Inequality Advisory Committee and the City Council’s Select Committee on Minimum Wage. There will be plenty of opportunities for future participation in this critical discussion, including an online town hall that I am launching today. I encourage all to stay passionate and stay engaged.
Together, we will get to $15 per hour, and we will get it right.”