Minimum-wage workers flock to Seattle public hearing to press $15-an-hour target

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SEATTLE — Minimum-wage workers and their advocates packed a public hearing at Town Hall Seattle Wednesday night to advocate for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the city.

The joint hearing before Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee and the Seattle City Council was the first opportunity for the public to weigh in on an issue that’s attracting national attention and will likely pit labor against business interests.

NEXT STEPS FOR THE MINIMUM WAGE

• The Seattle City Council Select Committee on the minimum wage will hold eight public meetings through June. Meetings dates and times are available here.

• The Mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee is expected to make a recommendation to the City Council on raising the minimum wage by April 30. Its meetings are not open to the public.

Seattle would become the first major city to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, if such a measure became law.

About 800 people, many wearing red T-shirts with “$15” on the front, cheered calls to raise the city’s minimum wage.

Jason Harvey, who described himself as a Navy veteran and an eight-year Burger King employee, said he receives food stamps and goes to food banks to make ends meet.

He urged the committee members to not carve out exceptions to a $15 minimum-wage measure.

“If you pass this with 100 exceptions, you’re going to end up hurting people like me who need your help.”

Stephen Price told committee members that 46 million people in the United States live in poverty.

“What we have is an historic moment. Seattle has an opportunity to say something about poverty. It’s a moral and a political question,” he said.

But Jasmine Donovan, granddaughter of the founder of Seattle-based Dick’s Drive-In restaurants, said that if the minimum wage were raised to $15, the company’s costs would increase $1.5 million.

“Sadly, some of our benefits would have to be on the table, including 100 percent health-care coverage for employees who work at least 24 hours,” she said.

Rob Wilson, who said he owns a small business in Seattle, said he’d like to see a minimum-wage increase that took into account tips and employee benefits.

Giving companies credit for employee-benefit packages, including health care, is one idea raised by members of the Mayor’s Income Inequality Committee as an alternative to the higher minimum wage.

“We do support the idea of a raise in the minimum wage, but the solution we support is a pragmatic one,” Wilson said.

Murray formed the 23-member Income Inequality Committee before taking office in January, signaling his intent to make a priority his campaign pledge to increase the minimum wage during his term.

The committee, which has met three times since January, is expected to deliver a proposal to the City Council by April 30. To date, the committee hasn’t addressed the contentious issues of how much to increase pay, how quickly and whether there will be any exemptions.

Next week, Murray’s committee is expected to receive the reports from researchers at two universities about the characteristics of the Seattle work force and the likely impacts of an increase in the minimum wage. Washington state has a highest-in-the-nation minimum wage of $9.32 an hour.

The City Council formed its own select committee to examine the wage issue in advance of receiving any proposal from the mayor’s committee.

“We have a moment in Seattle where people are hungry to talk about income inequality and how it affects our city,” said Sally Clark, chair of the select committee.

The short timeline to develop a minimum-wage proposal reflects the pressure from low-wage and fast-food worker activists as well as mainstream labor unions and new Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant to adopt a higher wage ordinance or face a citizen’s initiative that could appear on the November ballot.

A poll released in February by EMC Research of 800 likely Seattle voters found 68 percent support a $15 minimum wage. The poll was commissioned by a coalition of labor unions and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.