Cheers, jeers, and a lawsuit for Seattle’s $15 wage

By Sue Misao
Northwest Asian Weekly

The Seattle Restaurant Alliance called it “disappointing,” City Councilmember Kshama Sawant called it a “historic victory,” the immigrant-rights group OneAmerica said it was “a critical first step,” and the International Franchise Association is filing a lawsuit against the City of Seattle — all because Seattle City Council unanimously approved the adoption of a $15 per hour minimum wage on June 2.

Beginning April 1, 2015, the legislation will phase in a $15 per hour minimum wage annually over 3 to 7 years, depending on employer size.

“Today, we answer President Obama’s call and the moral call to address the plight of low wage workers,” said Councilmember Sally J. Clark. “Seattle’s new law puts low wage workers on a path to $15 and does it in a way that respects Seattle’s love for local businesses and world-leading innovation.”

Twenty-four percent of Seattle workers earn hourly wages of $15 per hour or less, and approximately 13.6 percent of the Seattle community lives below the federal poverty level, according to a University of Washington study. Washington state’s minimum wage is currently $9.32 per hour. Effective April 1, 2015, the minimum wage in Seattle will be $10 or $11 per hour depending on employer size.

“Seattle listened and today, we are acting to help workers earn a living wage,” said Councilmember Bruce Harrell. “This is one of the most important race and social justice-related legislation enacted, most positively impacting people of color, women, and immigrants.”

Despite the inclusion of the tip credit, long phase-in, and training wage, which she opposed, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant called the vote a win.

“This is a victory for our movement — it shows the power of working people when we organize and fight for our rights,” said Sawant. “It will inspire millions of people all over the nation to build on this historic step forward. Fifteen in Seattle is just the beginning.”

Many local restaurant owners were displeased with the action. The Seattle Restaurant Alliance said in a statement released after the vote, “As an industry, we have been committed to discussions about changes to minimum wage in Seattle. However, this ordinance will cause undue hardship on local restaurants.”

Members of the Ethnic Community Coalition, a group comprising owners of small ethnic and immigrant businesses, felt the impact of $15/hour would hurt their livelihoods.

“The Ethnic Community Coalition supports employees to have higher wages,” the ECC said in a statement following the City Council’s action. “However, the ECC is extremely disappointed with our local elected officials for ignoring the ethnic immigrant business owner community of Seattle. This legislation will likely result in the gentrification of the ethnic businesses community as gentrification has occurred in other communities in Seattle. The ECC will continue to lead the fight for economic equity for all immigrant ethnic businesses and are actively working with small business throughout Seattle’s once appreciated neighborhood lifestyles.”

Conversely, some argued that the higher wage would help Seattle’s ethnic and immigrant workers.

“Not only will higher wages put more income in people’s pockets and boost our economy,” said Rich Stolz, chief executive officer of OneAmerica, “but greater income could mean that workers may not need that third job, parents may have more time to spend with their children in schools, families may have a little breathing room as they navigate transportation and housing costs and other basic necessities, and workers’ dignity will be valued by employers.”

However, the Washington D.C.-based International Franchise Association was not so pleased with the higher wage.

“The City Council’s action today is unfair, discriminatory, and a deliberate attempt to achieve a political agenda at the expense of small franchise business owners,” said IFA President Steve Caldeira. “IFA has no choice but to file a legal challenge against the City of Seattle for this action. The suit will seek to overturn the unfair and discriminatory minimum wage plan that was approved by the City Council.”

The legislation will take effect 30 days after Mayor Ed Murray signs the legislation into law. (end)

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