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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Renton $19 minimum wage measure qualifies for February special election

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SEATTLE — Renton voters may in February weigh in on a measure to raise the city’s minimum wage to roughly $19 an hour.

The measure — modeled after a similar campaign in Tukwila that passed with overwhelming support — would raise the city’s minimum wage to be more in line with those in Seattle, SeaTac and Tukwila. King County officials proposed a similar $19 minimum wage proposal in September.

Organizers say the hike, which qualified for the ballot last week, is necessary to help individuals and families keep up with soaring housing costs and the rising cost of goods in the region. Critics argue the higher wage floors would squeeze small businesses, triggering job losses and benefit cuts.

Currently, Renton businesses must pay at least the state’s minimum wage of $15.74 an hour. If approved, Renton would be the fourth city in Washington to boost its minimum wage above the state’s rate.

“We collected more signatures than votes cast in the last November general election, which I think … speaks to the overwhelming support for this initiative,” said Guillermo Zazueta, chair of the Raise the Wage Renton campaign.

If the measure passes, businesses with more than 500 employees will be required to match Tukwila’s minimum wage beginning July 1, which will be $20.29 an hour once adjusted for inflation.

The Renton measure exempts businesses with fewer than 15 employees. Employers with 15 to 500 workers would have a multiyear phase-in period. These mid-size companies would be required to pay roughly $18 an hour starting July 1, and meet the large employers’ rate in July 2026.

But whether Renton residents will actually vote on the initiative remains up in the air.

The Renton City Council, which will review the measure Dec. 4, could approve the ordinance without alteration outright — a move organizers and supporters are urging.

Zazueta said doing so would help Renton avoid paying roughly $80,000 for a February special election for the ballot initiative, and allow city staff time to notify businesses and workers ahead of the July 1 start date.

“We want this campaign behind us so the city can take its proper time to implement it,”

At a City Council meeting on Nov. 20, several Renton business owners criticized the proposed minimum wage increase, and asked for the initiative to come before voters, ideally with a city-backed alternative.

Some said accommodating the raise would lead to layoffs and benefit reductions and argued small businesses exempt from the minimum wage increase would still be hampered since they would be competing with bigger businesses’ higher wages when hiring.

Though she did not explicitly acknowledge the initiative by name, Renton Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Diane Dobson told council members that business owners are still reeling from the financial knock of the pandemic and face ongoing workforce shortages and lowered consumer spending.

“I ask you to listen to the business community, reach out, have those conversations [and] find out how the things that you are voting on impact the businesses, impact the residents, in the community,” Dobson said during public comment.

Debate is ongoing on the effects of higher minimum wages on employment. Some studies have found that raising the minimum wage led to fewer low-wage jobs, cut benefits and reduced hours. Others have found higher wage floors don’t result in widespread job losses, and can even spur job growth.

The estimated impacts on consumer prices are also mixed, but typically small; and studies have found improved earnings for low-wage workers can reduce poverty and debt for some households.

In King County, a 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. For an individual without children to afford living in King County, they would need to earn about $23 an hour, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. Two working adults with two children would each need to earn about $30 an hour.

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