In Our View: All Eyes on SeaTac

King County city may be perfect setting for grand minimum wage experiment

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SeaTac’s raising of the minimum wage to $15 an hour for some jobs could serve as a grand petri dish for other municipalities. Voters of the small city in south King County, which is home to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and has about 27,000 residents, last month approved a minimum wage proposal that drew attention and donations from across the country. Approval for the ballot initiative was confirmed last week following a recount.

The initiative will raise the city’s hourly wage floor for hospitality and transportation workers to $15 an hour and includes annual adjustments for inflation. Because much of SeaTac’s commerce is airport-related, the new minimum applies to a large percentage of the city’s workers. Washington’s statewide minimum wage, which is the highest in the nation, will go to $9.32 an hour starting Jan. 1, meaning SeaTac’s new wage will mark a 61 percent increase over the statewide level.

The notion of a minimum wage is one that has spawned countless newspaper commentaries and nearly as many Ph.D. dissertations. There is no shortage of opinions on whether instituting an arbitrary wage floor will kill jobs by leading businesses to hire fewer workers, or whether it will improve the economy by giving workers more buying power. By providing for a drastic jump in the minimum wage, SeaTac’s new law might provide some answers to those questions through real-life experiences, rather than conjecture and theory. Those answers will take years to formulate, but they likely will be more valuable than establishing economic policy based upon computer models.

Allowing for such an experiment in a relatively small town — but one that is in a metropolitan area and is not isolated from external economic forces — will be invaluable. It certainly is more reasonable than the growing movement to raise the minimum wage in Seattle to $15 an hour. If a wage jump in the region’s largest city had dire economic consequences in terms of companies laying off workers or not creating entry-level positions because of the costs, those consequences could be felt throughout the Northwest. If the experiment fails in SeaTac, those job losses will be devastating to the workers there, but they won’t widely impact the rest of the state.

Then there is the issue of raising the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $15 an hour, an idea that has been supported during protests in several large cities across the country. As The Columbian has written editorially in the past: “If you wish to improve your earning power, improve your skills. Developing skills that are valuable to employers — whether through education or experience or natural talent — is the surest way to increase your income.” The rate of $15 an hour is indisputably arbitrary, whether it be for hospitality workers or fast-food workers; according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the living wage for a single adult in Clark County is $8.62 an hour.

President Obama recently has made wealth inequality a talking point, and he has targeted an increase in the federal minimum wage as a method for reducing such inequality. Such an increase would not impact Washington or Oregon, which have the nation’s two highest minimum-wage levels, nor would such an increase be large enough to have any discernible impact on buying power or employment levels. But the president, other politicians, and business and labor leaders likely will be keeping an eye on SeaTac over the next couple years. They will be witnessing a grand experiment.