City Council Questions Mayor's Minimum Wage Plan

May 23, 2014

Matthew Hollek owns a Subway sandwich shop in Ballard. He said he functions like a small business and shouldn't have to pay higher wages than his competitors nearby.
Matthew Hollek owns a Subway sandwich shop in Ballard. He said he functions like a small business and shouldn't have to pay higher wages than his competitors nearby.
Credit Amy Radil

The Seattle City Council took up Mayor Ed Murray’s minimum wage proposal Thursday. Labor leaders said they weren’t thrilled about the council's opening questions.

The mayor’s proposal was a compromise between business and labor leaders on his Income Inequality Advisory Committee, who said if the council makes big changes they may no longer back it. The proposal would raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over three to seven years, depending on the size of the business.

SEIU president David Rolf co-chaired the advisory committee. He said the council’s initial response seems to favor business. 

“The council staff produced a set of options for amendments, almost all of which would take the proposal in a more conservative direction and really give it a pro-business tilt that doesn’t reflect the compromise reached in the committee,” he said.“If you tinker with one part of the deal, you have to tinker with the other parts.”

The options researched by council staff include a longer phase-in for nonprofits, provisions for lower “training” wages and a separate category for the smallest businesses — so called "micro-employers" — with the possibility that they be exempt from the wage increase. 

But Sally Clark, who chairs the City Council committee, dismissed conjecture in the press as hyperbolic. “Reading some of the media accounts of the questions that are being raised and ‘whether the deal is falling apart’ has been very dramatic,” Clark said.

She said council members are just asking questions at this point. But she’s encouraging them to hone in on specific concerns in the next several days. 

“I don’t think any council member is coming at it from, 'Gosh, is it too pro-business or is it too pro-labor?' They’re really breaking it down into components and trying to figure out, 'Does this work?'” Clark said.

Scott James  works the night shift at Safeway in Ballard. He says getting $15 an hour would help him get his own place instead of living with family.
Scott James works the night shift at Safeway in Ballard. He says getting $15 an hour would help him get his own place instead of living with family.
Credit Amy Radil

She said she is concerned about the impact to human service nonprofits, especially if the city can’t increase funding to help these groups pay the new wage.

The council also heard from owners of business franchises, who are considered large businesses if their parent company has more than 500 employees nationwide. Large businesses would be required to phase in the $15 wage more quickly than small ones.

Matthew Hollek owns a Subway sandwich shop in Ballard. He says he can’t afford to pay higher wages than his non-franchise competitors nearby. He asked the council to consider him a small business.  “I don’t get support from the major corporation, I’m not a corporate executive, I’m not a Wall Street fat cat, I’m a small businessman that’s just running my store,” Hollek said.

But Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant said fast-food employees should get a raise as quickly as possible, considering that their strikes last year helped prompt the minimum wage debate. “If we start making this loophole where fast food and franchisees are going to be considered small businesses, we’re going to be selling out the very people who fought for this and brought us here,” Sawant said.

Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said he’s not sure how franchise businesses should be treated, adding that they share some traits with mom and pop businesses. “It is really generalizing to say these are very wealthy people with deep pockets who have the franchises, and we need to be mindful of that,” he said.

Clark and Rasmussen said they’re concerned that this plan will make it harder for young people to get jobs; that’s an issue they hope to monitor if the wage increase goes through.