Seattle’s move to phase-in an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour (from the current $9.32) is described variously as: audacious; a “step too far;” a misguided experiment; a worthy experiment; built on dubious economics; and a move that will “destroy the economy.”
It can’t be all of that, can it? The volume of the punditry and spinning on this one is shrill, and the scope of the alarmed, breathless opinion and analysis by the “very serious people” about Seattle’s bold move obscures the bottom line: A region is trying to do the right thing for its workers in these parlous economic times. (Conflict of interest alert: The author lives in — and loves — Seattle.)
Will it be the end of the world as we know it? Here’s what happened. On June 2 the Seattle City Council unanimously approved the adoption of a $15 per hour minimum wage, making Seattle the first major city in America to take this type of action to address income inequality. Beginning April 1, 2015, the legislation will phase-in a $15 per hour minimum wage annually over three to seven years, depending on employer size.
"Today we answer President [Barack] Obama's call and the moral call to address the plight of low wage workers," said Councilmember Sally J. Clark, chair of the city council's Select Committee on the Minimum Wage and Income Inequality. "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 about 13.6 percent of the Seattle community of 652,000 lives below the federal poverty level, according to a University of Washington study. Washington state's minimum wage is currently $9.32 per hour, but effective April 1, 2015, the minimum wage in Seattle will be $10.00 or $11.00 per hour depending on employer size.
"With inaction at the state and national levels, it's time for cities to demonstrate bold and necessary leadership to address income inequality," said Council President Tim Burgess. "Seattle has found a workable and careful compromise that recognizes both the harm caused by stagnant wages and the harm to local businesses should we move forward too quickly."
And that’s the thing — the increase might take as many as seven years to fully kick-in. From that perspective it’s pretty modest. Coastal cities might be underwater by 2022, and we might all be wearing air filtration devices and wet-suits by then as well.
"This is a victory for our movement - it shows the power of working people when we organize and fight for our rights," said Councilmember Kshama Sawant, an economics professor and socialist who was elected to the city council largely on a platform urging a minimum wage increase. "It will inspire millions of people all over the nation to build on this historic step forward. Fifteen in Seattle is just the beginning."
Maybe there is a degree of jealousy and guilt at work: Somewhere deep down in all the hue and cry, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, maybe other cities and their voters are glad that a major city is progressive enough to lead the way. Maybe, as reported by ThinkProgress, they are watching closely — someone had to take that first step.
Image credit: Seattle skyline at night by Kevin Cappis via Flickr