Seattle’s new $15 an hour minimum wage is scheduled to start phasing in next April. But it first must survive several challenges, both in court and at the ballot box.
Franchisees are challenging the law in court, and two separate groups are collecting signatures to put the law to a popular vote on this November’s ballot.
Forward Seattle, a group mostly made up of owners of small businesses who are unhappy with the new law, has put 80 paid signature gatherers on the streets. They need to collect 16,510 signatures before July 2 to put a referendum on this November’s ballot.
“We don’t have much time, this is our last opportunity to try to do something about this and make sure we are heard,” said Angela Cough, co-owner of the Flying Apron Gluten Free and Vegan Bakery in Fremont and the co-chair of Forward Seattle.
Cough is actually a supporter of raising the minimum wage, but she thinks $12.50 an hour would be a reasonable compromise. The current plan requires small business to reach to $15 an hour by 2021, and $17.25 an hour by 2024.
“We have no idea what is going to happen as a result of the ordinance,” she said. “There has never been a city who has actually gone this aggressive on increasing the minimum wage; any of the prior city examples have spent years increasing to essentially the rate we are at now.”
Washington state currently has the second highest minimum wage in the nation, behind Massachusetts.
Since the Seattle City Council passed the minimum wage plan in record time, many people don’t understand the law or the possible consequences, Cough said. “And when they think about it, they are like, whoa, wait a second, we didn’t think that would go through. That was signed into law?”
At this past weekend’s Fremont Festival, Cough and Forward Seattle co-chair Kathrina Tugadi set up a table and collected signatures in front of Cough’s café.
Several blocks away, West Seattle resident Craig Keller mounted his own separate signature drive. His table featured a large sign that read “Stop Force Wage Increases.” His petition references the Declaration of Independence and refers to the new law as "tyranny."
Festival-goer Larry Seto stopped with his daughter to sign the petition. He didn't know that anybody was challenging the new law. “I was actually surprised to see this, but I’m pleasantly surprised,” he said.
The new law is also being challenged in court. On June 11, the International Franchise Association, along with five local business owners, filed suit claiming the law discriminates against franchisees. Those are local small businesses that operate chains such as Subway and McDonald’s, as well as a host of other less well-known brands.
The new law regards all franchisees as big businesses because of their connection to a larger corporate parent. That requires them to phase in the $15 an hour minimum wage faster than other small businesses. Franchisees claim that puts their businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
“To put us on a different level of playing field, to be able to compete, it’s just not just,” said Kathy Lyons, co-owner of BrightStar Care in North Seattle and a plaintiff in the suit. “My term is ‘un-American.’”
The lawsuit filed in US District Court seeks an injunction to stop the law from going into effect next year.
Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray calls the IFA lawsuit a “distraction.” He believes the city is on solid legal footing in terms of how it regards franchisees.
As for the ballot challenges? Murray says he finds them "disappointing."
“I worry that this is going to poison the atmosphere between business and employees in this city. I thought we had a way to come together. No one was happy, but no one is ever happy when you work on a compromise,” Murray said.
If the minimum wage law qualifies for the ballot, Murray believes it will be approved by voters.
And supporters of the law say they are prepared to fight for it.
“I don’t think there is any standing still. It’s still up in the air,” said Philip Locker, one of the founders of 15 Now, the group that had been advocating for an even more aggressive minimum wage plan.
Locker said the only way to preserve the $15 an hour wage is to ensure that it spreads beyond Seattle.
“Either we succeed in spreading $15 throughout King County and Washington state and nationwide, or Seattle is going to be under enormous pressure from business to undermine, water down further and eventually overturn the $15 that was passed here,” Locker said. “It’s not secure, it’s not stable.”
The fight over the minimum wage is likely to be a long one. Whatever happens in the courts or on this November’s ballot, other groups have announced their intention to challenge the wage next November as well.