State House panel holds hearing on raising minimum wage

Seattle councilor urges $15 per hour

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OLYMPIA — Socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant testified before a Washington state House panel Tuesday in support of raising the state’s minimum wage.

The House Committee on Labor and Workforce Development took public testimony on House Bill 2672, which would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next three years. Sawant argued that while every step toward increasing the minimum wage is critical and will strengthen the city of Seattle’s proposal of raising it to $15 an hour, she said raising the statewide minimum wage to $12 will not be enough.

“I suggest raising it to $15 this year,” she said.

Under the measure, the wage increases would apply to those 18 and over and would first increase from $9.32 an hour to $10 an hour on Jan. 1, 2015. A year later, it would increase to $11 and on Jan. 1, 2017, it would move to $12 an hour. Further annual increases would be based on inflation. Currently, the state’s $9.32 minimum wage is the highest statewide minimum in the nation.

James Fricke of Capital Aeroporter, an airport shuttle business based in Olympia, told lawmakers he’s against the bill because some minimum wage jobs are not meant to last for an entire career.

“While it’s laudable for everyone to have increased income to live on, we need to recognize that most minimum wage jobs are a stepping point,” he said. “We have drivers I don’t expect to become career drivers.”

The bill’s prime sponsor, Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell, of Seattle, said one of reasons to raise the minimum wage is because many of those who work full time at that rate are still within the poverty level income range.

“We should reward the idea of working,” she said. “It really gets at that principle that there is inherent dignity in work.”

In the past year, the issue of minimum wage in Washington has been in the political spotlight. Voters in the airport city of SeaTac in November approved a measure granting a $15 an hour minimum wage for workers at the airport and related industries including hotels and rental car companies. A King County Superior Court judge has since ruled that the law applies to about 1,600 hotel and parking lot workers in SeaTac, but not to employees and contractors working within Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is operated by the Port of Seattle.

In Seattle, officials have been exploring the idea of raising the minimum wage there to as high as $15 an hour since last year. In January, newly elected Seattle Mayor Ed Murray directed his department leaders to come up with a strategy for paying city employees more. In his January State of the State address, Gov. Jay Inslee called for the state minimum wage to increase by between $1.50 and $2.50 an hour.

Bruce Beckett of the Washington Restaurant Association said the group is against the bill because many of the state’s restaurant jobs are entry-level and are filled by students.

“There are three fewer jobs per unit than in other states because of these policies,” he said, referring to the number of jobs available at restaurants throughout the state.

He said the group has joined minimum wage discussions with the city of Seattle “in the spirit of finding a reasonable path forward.”

Washington state is one of 11 states that make a cost-of-living adjustment to its minimum wage each year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

The bill, which has been signed by more than 30 House Democrats, isn’t expected to gain traction in the Senate, which is controlled by a predominantly Republican majority.

Lawmakers also heard testimony on a bill that would allow employers to pay a training wage to new employees for the first 680 hours they are employed. House Bill 2614 would create a training wage of 75 percent of the state or federal minimum wage, whichever amount is higher.