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PSARA Endorses Minimum Wage Plan, But It’s Not a Done Deal Yet

By Mike Andrew 

PSARA’s Executive Board has endorsed the minimum wage plan proposed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee (IIAC), which would, when fully implemented, give Seattle workers the highest minimum wage in the country.

Many labor and community organizations have also endorsed the plan, but Murray may have unintentionally thrown a wrench into the gears with comments he made to the Seattle Times editorial board on May 12.

The IIAC was made up of representatives of business, labor, and community non-profits and was supposed to offer a plan that could garner broad support across all sectors of the city.

The compromise was complicated, with phase-in periods from three to ten years, and a plan that would allow employers to count tips and healthcare benefits towards the minimum wage goals for the first few years, and then phase that system out as the minimum wage phased in.

When the plan debuted at a May 1 press conference, it seemed like it had a good chance of going through. But then Murray tinkered with the terms of the deal before transmitting draft legislation to the City Council.

The City, Murray told the Seattle Times, would help employers qualify for a little-known state “training wage” program, and therefore be able to pay newly-hired employees less than minimum wage.

“We put it in the language since the agreement came out,” Murray told the Times editorial board. “I’ve committed that this city will advocate to get those certificates for that period of time. It’s something that initially we couldn’t get labor to agree to. I’m not sure we got them there, but we did it anyway.”

While the Times welcomed Murray’s intervention, some on the labor side characterized it as a “bait and switch” tactic.

“We support the proposal that was transmitted by the [IIAC] committee,” Martin Luther King County Labor Council (MLKCLC) Executive Secretary Dave Freiboth told the Retiree Advocate. “But I’m pretty damn upset by the Mayor’s comments – and you can put that on the record.”

“The training wage was intended as a compliance issue,” Freiboth explained, to make the City ordinance square with state law. “It was not discussed as a way for the City to facilitate or encourage businesses to pay substandard wages.”

In a blog post, Murray seemed to walk back his statement to the Times.

“A training wage is not something I endorse and is not part of this deal,” he wrote in a post dated May 16. State law has tough protections in place, Murray explained, and his proposal “is narrowly tailored with criteria to ensure the wages of other workers [are] protected.”

Murray’s assurances may not be able to save the compromise, however, as labor leaders accused the business side of trying to change the terms of the deal behind closed doors.

On May 21, eight members of the IIAC, including all four labor members, sent a letter of concern to the City Council. While saying that the signers still “believe the Mayor’s compromise proposal remains the best way forward,” the letter warns that the plan is being weakened.

“We are very concerned that the City Council’s Central Staff is presenting options to the Council to weaken the Mayor’s proposal,” the letter charges.

“The options the Central Staff contemplates… are options that the [IIAC] considered and rejected as part of the negotiated settlement.”

Signing the letter were Freiboth; IIAC co-chair David Rolf of SEIU 775NW; Diane Sosne of SEIU 1199NW; Steve Williamson, signing for UFCW 21 political director Sarah Cherin; Pramila Jayapal of the Center for Community Change; Eric Liu of Citizen University; Nicole Vallestero Keenan from Puget Sound SAGE; and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.

The same day, the MLKCLC unanimously passed a resolution urging the City Council to “create a more adequate enforcement mechanism, shorten the length of the phase-in to a reasonable period of time and remove the healthcare phase-in, training wage, and any tip penalty, including a ‘temporary’ tip penalty, from any $15 per hour minimum wage ordinance.”

Murray’s legislation came to the City Council with eight cosponsors, every member except Kshama Sawant. Sawant says the IIAC plan is “good” and “a step forward,” but her 15Now organization has launched an initiative campaign to pass the $15 wage without a waiting period for big business and without the complicated tips and healthcare rules.

Sources say that a pro-business initiative will also be filed, but whether either side will actually go to the ballot now seems to depend on what the City Council does with the mayor’s proposal.

A new EMC Research poll shows that a whopping 74% of Seattle “likely voters” support a $15-per-hour minimum wage, up from 68% support in January.

A clear majority – 57% – supports the IIAC plan, and that number jumps to 66% when respondents are told who backs the plan. The 15Now proposal gets 45% support, and that goes up to 50% when pollsters explain Sawant is backing it.

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