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Seattle affordability, minimum wage, Self-sufficiency
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Minimum wage reaches $15 for first time in Seattle

Seattle approved a move to a $15 minimum wage in 2014. The benefits of that change are still in dispute. (AP)

As the year turned over to 2017, some workers in Seattle got a pay bump, reaching the city’s target of a $15 minimum wage. But as Mayor Ed Murray fielded questions from the press Thursday, he noted that $15 is still not a living wage.

Murray addressed the criticism of how to approach fast-food restaurants and chains that could be considered large companies, yet are run by local business owners. It’s notable because different sized businesses are phased into the higher minimum wage at different rates.

Related: Washington state welcomes new minimum wage in 2017

“I recognize that when you are talking about a franchise or a fast-food restaurant, the local owner has pretty heavy burdens,” Murray said. “My argument would be that the way to remedy that is with the multi-national corporation, that could make a better financial arrangement for the local owner. Not to do it on the back of local employees.”

“After all, $15 is not a full livable wage in a city like Seattle or San Francisco,” he added. “… when you deal with a fast-food chain and the like, it’s an issue about the model the multi-national corporation needs to address.”

In a press release from the mayor’s office Thursday, following the press conference, city officials noted that a living wage is a priority in Seattle.

“We want to ensure that all workers in Seattle earn a living wage,” said Dylan Orr, Director of the Seattle Office of Labor Standards.

In the Thursday press conference at Seattle’s Central Co-Op, Mayor Murray acknowledged the politically-charged times currently facing the country, but said that a positive factor among that is Seattle’s successes with minimum wage. As of 2017, around 70,000 Seattle workers are earning at the $15 minimum-wage level, according to the mayor’s office. It is the first time that a group of workers in the city has reached the target minimum wage set in 2014.

“We just had a fairly contentious election in this country and one thing we heard again and again is that people in this nation are struggling,” Murray said. “They are struggling to make ends meet. They are struggling with what I think is a defining issue of our time — income inequality.

“While others talk about ideology and demonizing different groups of Americans, Seattle is doing something about the great challenge of our time by raising the minimum wage,” he added. “And we did it collaboratively.”

Seattle minimum wage finally reaches $15

Seattle approved a minimum-wage ordinance in 2014. Since then, the city has slowly increased the minimum wage. Different sized businesses have been phased in at different rates. As of the start of 2017, the city’s largest employers are required to pay the full $15 an hour.

But not all workers are at the $15 minimum-wage level yet in Seattle. The following rates include businesses that are not based in Seattle but employ workers in town.

Employers with 501 or more employees
• If the employer does not pay toward an employee’s medical benefits: $15 / hour
• If the employer pays toward medical benefits: $13.50 / hour

Employers with 500 or fewer employees
• If employer does not pay $2 per hour to medical benefits, and employee does not earn $2 per hour in tips: $13 / hour
• If employer does pay $2 per hour to medical, and employee earns at least $2 per hour in tips: $11 / hour

The wage increases will continue each year for all businesses not yet at $15. The increases will happen on Jan. 1 of each year, until 2021. Even beyond that, minimum wage in Seattle could increase at additional percentages based on inflation.

Mayor Murray touted that Seattle is responsible for inspiring other communities across the state and country to make their own moves to higher minimum wages. He cited the U.S. Department of Labor, saying that states that raised wages in 2014 experienced faster job growth than states that left wages stagnant.

“Washington voters saw what happened in Seattle and the state said “Yes” to raising the state minimum wage,” Murray said. “What have they seen? They’ve seen a declining unemployment rate in the City of Seattle. They’ve seen Fortune 500 companies locate in the City of Seattle. They’ve seen restaurants continue to open and jobs continue to expand in the City of Seattle.”

“Our economy continues to grow,” he said. “It grows because when families have more money, they have more money to spend in local businesses. By providing good paying jobs, we are providing a way for businesses to prosper.”

Since the new minimum wage program was approved in 2014, many have tried to draw conclusions on the pay hikes. But experts note that the impact of the $15 minimum wage won’t likely be evident for years to come.

As for Seattle officials, they maintain a policy of moving toward a living wage in the Emerald City.

“My staff have been fielding calls from Seattle businesses making sure they are ready for 2017, as well as calls from employees asking about their rights,” Orr said as director of the Seattle Office of Labor Standards. “I encourage both workers and employers to call us at 206-684-4500 or email us at [email protected] for answers to questions about the minimum wage and other labor standards laws.”

$15 criticism

Murray also fielded questions about the move toward a $15 minimum wage. It was pointed out that local civic leaders, such as celebrity Seattle chef Tom Douglas, have criticized the higher minimum wage. Douglas owns a string of successful restaurants but has stated publicly that small restaurants could suffer under the high wage.

“There are other restaurant owners who believe it has been a good experience for them, a good experience for their employees … restaurants that have opened since the minimum wage has been raised,” Murray said. “You only have to look around to see the number of restaurants that continue to open in this city.”

The mayor said that the smaller businesses have a slower phase-in rate than bigger businesses, to give them time to adjust.

“This is not a city where restaurants are closing down,” he said. “This is a city where restaurants are opening up.”

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