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News / Northwest

Renton organizers close to getting $19 minimum wage on ballot

By Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, The Seattle Times
Published: July 4, 2023, 9:38am

SEATTLE — After months of knocking on doors and campaigning outside grocery stores, organizers behind an initiative to raise Renton’s minimum wage to about $19 an hour say they are close to qualifying for the November ballot.

Raise the Wage Renton organizers submitted a petition with more than 10,000 signatures to the city clerk’s office last week. The proposal would raise the city’s minimum wage closer to those in Seattle, SeaTac and Tukwila.

Supporters say the state’s current minimum wage, $15.74 an hour, isn’t enough to keep up with rising housing costs and high inflation in the region.

“South King County is where a lot of people priced out of Seattle are moving,” said E. Bailey Medilo, a board member of the Raise the Wage Renton campaign. “The issue here is the rent is already rising as well. It’s impossible for a family to be raised in South King County on minimum wages.”

The effort follows a successful campaign in Tukwila to bring the city’s minimum wage in line with SeaTac’s, requiring large employers to pay workers about $19 an hour starting July 1. Voters approved the proposal with more than 82% of the vote in November.

In Seattle, the minimum wage is between $16.50 and $18.69, depending on the job. SeaTac’s minimum wage for transportation and hospitality workers is $19.06 per hour.

If passed by voters, the proposal would raise Renton’s minimum wage for employers with more than 500 employees to match Tukwila’s minimum wage, which will be $18.99 for large employers starting July 2023. The minimum wage would adjust for inflation each year.

Opposition against raising the minimum wage generally focuses on potential job losses and increased consumer prices.

While a 2017 University of Washington study found Seattle’s higher minimum wage led to fewer low-wage jobs and cut hours, a 2018 University of California, Berkeley, study of six cities, including Seattle, found increased wage floors did not result in widespread job losses. A 2023 UC Berkeley study of 47 large U.S. counties where the minimum wage had reached $15 an hour by 2021 found the higher wages induced job growth, and the estimated effects on prices are mixed and typically small, studies have found.

The Renton measure exempts businesses with fewer than 15 employees. Employers with 500 or fewer workers would have a multiyear phase-in period, meeting the large employers rate in July 2026.

It’s unclear exactly how many workers in the city would be affected by increased wages, but supporters note many hourly workers are employed at The Landing shopping center, grocery stores, car dealerships and at businesses along Renton’s downtown corridor.

Organizers say the higher pay would help low-income families, immigrants and older adults topping off fixed incomes. Of the roughly 105,000 people who live in Renton, more than half are people of color and about 28% are foreign born, according to census data. While the median household income is about $84,000, about 1 in 5 households makes less than $40,000 a year.

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A King County worker making the state’s minimum wage would need to work 103 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment, according to estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, an individual without children would need to make about $21 an hour to afford living in the Seattle metro area. Two working adults with two children would each need to earn about $29 an hour.

The potential for higher minimum wages to cause a rise in consumer prices has been “the most sensitive point” for residents, said Guillermo Zazueta, chair of the Raise the Wage Renton campaign.

“What we’re trying to say is, because inflation is so high, we need to make sure our wages are on par with regional wage standards,” Zazueta said.

The Tukwila campaign faced no organized opposition, and “no one bothered to step up to write the con statement on the ballot,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, which organized the ballot measure.

“That was the remarkable thing about the Tukwila campaign and how much public opinion shifted,” Wilson said. “It’s a bipartisan, working-class issue.”

Renton isn’t the only Seattle-area community advocating for an increased minimum wage. Local organizers in Burien and in unincorporated King County have begun lobbying council members to pass ordinances to raise the minimum wage, Wilson said.

“We hope they succeed because we’d love to see this spread to as many places as possible,” Wilson said, referring to Renton effort.

To qualify for the November ballot, the petition requires signatures from 15% of active registered voters in the city, or about 9,000 people, and be certified by the county elections office by Aug. 1.