Seattle minimum wage talk heats up

Businesses say $15 inevitable, but details are being debated

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photoStephanie Antioquia takes money from a customer Thursday at a Dick's Drive-In restaurant in Seattle. Dick's is part of a coalition of local small and medium-sized employers who want to see a proposed $15 minimum wage enacted in Seattle, but with some key qualifiers.

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SEATTLE — As the drumbeat for a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle grew louder last year following the election of a Socialist City Councilmember and a new mayor, the business community remained fairly quiet.

But as Mayor Ed Murray's advisory group finalizes its recommendations on how to increase the minimum wage, businesses — big, medium and small — are launching coordinated lobbying efforts to sway the public's mind.

OneSeattle, a coalition of local small and medium-sized employers, began its public campaign this month. The group has the backing of the large business associations, like the Washington Restaurant Association.

The coalition's stance: a $15 minimum wage, but with some key qualifiers. It wants a temporary training wage, a phase-in period (although unclear how long of a period), and for health care, commissions, tips and bonuses to be counted in total wages. The current minimum wage in Washington state is $9.32 an hour.

OneSeattle's public image features well-known Seattle entities like the burger chain Dick's Drive-In and pizza chain Pagliacci. So far, the group has not bought any airtime or other advertisements, but that's a possibility.

"It has taken awhile for businesses, manufacturers and nonprofits to get together and talk to each other," said Alex Fryer, the group's spokesman.

In Seattle, the prevailing debate is not whether the minimum wage will be increased to $15, but how and when. Murray said this week he wants his advisory group to finalize their recommendations by April 24. Then he and the City Council will hash out a final minimum wage proposal, with a vote coming by summer. His 24-member advisory group is made up of business and labor representatives, along with City Council members.

Countering OneSeattle is 15 Now, a grassroots group born out of the election of Socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council. What they want is clear: an immediate hike to the minimum wage to $15 for big corporations, such as franchises of fast food restaurants.

They support a three-year phase-in period for small and medium businesses with fewer than 250 full-time employees and nonprofit organizations. Their members include organizers who helped Sawant, who ran on raising the minimum wage, get nearly 94,000 votes in her election.

"There's so much support for 15 they can't oppose it now," said 15 Now organizer Jess Spear. "What they are trying to do is change it so they don't have to pay 15."

Business groups began organizing a response to increasing the minimum wage as far back as October last year. Different factions began meetings with the mayor and City Council members. Discussions eventually gave birth to OneSeattle.

"It's easy to have slogans and numbers, but it's a complex issue," said Louise Cernin, president of the Greater Seattle Business Association, a group that promotes gay businesses and tourism that joined OneSeattle.