By John Stang
A bill to increase Washington’s minimum wage cleared the House Labor Committee Thursday by a 4-3 party-line vote.
The Democrats’ committee victory means that Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D- Seattle, now has to nail down 50 votes to for her bill to pass the full House. It would increase Washington’s minimum wage from $9.47 to $12 an hour by 2019.
She introduced a similar bill last year, but it could scrape up only 46 or 47 votes behind the scenes. Farrell hopes expanding the phase-in period from three years to four years will pick up the remaining votes.
On another 4-3 vote, the committee recommended approval of a bill by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, to require companies with more than four employees to provide sick leave.
Committee chair Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, said: “This boils down to something simple to me. I don’t want to be served by someone who is sick.” Rep. Graham Hunt, R-Orting, replied that a sick leave bill “fosters employer-employee conflict” with tensions on the use of the sick leave.
If the two bills pass the Democratic-controlled House, they appear to have one or two supporters among the Republicans who hold the Senate majority. The measures would likely need at least one or two more GOP members to pass the upper chamber. Most GOP senators appear strongly opposed to each concept.
At Thursday’s labor committee vote on the wage bill, ranking Republican Rep. Matt Manweller of Ellensburg characterized minimum wages as primarily being for workers just starting out. “If you want more money, get more education. If you want more money, get better skills,” he said.
Sells replied: “When you’re at the bottom rung of the ladder, people have a difficult time to do the things that they have to do to climb up.”
The committee’s Democrats defeated an amendment Manweller proposed to create a lesser minimum wage for teenage workers. Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, has also offered a bill that more or less resurrects 2013 and 2014 Republican efforts to create a minimum wage for teen workers at 85 percent of the adult minimum wage. The teenage wage would only be allowed for a limited period of work.
In the past, Baumgartner’s teen wage bill has stalled in the Senate amid efforts to tweak it. The House committee vote against Manweller’s amendment is a sign that if Baumgartner’s measure eventually passes the Senate, it will face a tough time in the House.
However, the Manweller teen wage amendment could also be a sign that Republicans may be willing to offer Farrell and other Democrats opportunities to make compromises that would attract enough votes to enact a hike in the minimum wage.
Distributed by Crosscut Public Media
By John Stang
Several supporters of an increase in Washington’s minimum wage made a show of playing “bingo” Monday during a House Labor Committee hearing on the proposal. They marked off a box whenever a business lobbyist uttered a specific phrase or argument — such as Idaho’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage or passing costs to customers — to oppose the concept.
One opponent played along, finishing his testimony by saying, “I want you to note that I haven’t said, ‘Obamacare.'” “Bingo,” shouted a minimum wage proponent at the Olympia hearing, whose attendees overflowed into another room.
The labor committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to recommend that the House pass a bill by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, to increase Washington’s minimum wage over four years from the current $9.47 an hour to $12 an hour in 2019.
The committee will also vote on a bill by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, to require businesses with more than four employees to provide sick leave for their workers. Under her bill, which was also part of Monday’s hearing, the amount of required sick leave would vary by the size of the company.
The bulk of the people at the hearing appeared to support increasing the minimum wage and mandatory sick leave. But the opponents represented organizations with huge memberships.
Supporters talked about workers unable to live on a minimum wage when a single emergency can put someone deeply in debt. “People can’t make ends meet at $9.47,” said Long Beach hotel and restaurant owner Tiffany Turner. “These people are making less than $400 a week,” said small business owner Don Orange of Vancouver.
Sarajane Siegfriedt, representing the King County Democratic Party, said that when the federal government set up a minimum wage in the 1930s, “the concept of the minimum wage was a wage you can live on.”
“Nowadays, that living wage is about double the minimum wage,” she added. Supporters also suggested that increasing the minimum wage will circulate more money through the economy to businesses.
While supporters argued that raising the minimum wage would add only a few percentage points to the costs for a business, opponents contended the proposed increase could raise costs by up to 30 percent. And the corresponding costs could be passed along to consumers.
“When some say increasing the minimum wage will have little impact on businesses, that’s not true,” said Robert Battles of the Association of Washington Business.
“A living wage and minimum wage are not the same thing, and were never intended to be,” said Pullman business owner Joreca Brinkman. She said her restaurant operates with less than a 5 percent profit margin and increasing the minimum wage would erase that.
So far, Republican leaders have opposed both the wage-hike and the mandatory sick leave proposal. However there have been rumblings in the past two weeks that the Republicans and business interests might favor having a new minimum wage hammered out in the Legislature rather than risk facing a less-nuanced minimum-wage initiative in 2016.
Bruce Beckett of the Washington Restaurant Association told the House committee, “We’re not excited about the blunt instrument of a ballot initiative.”
House Labor Committee chair Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, said he believes Farrell’s minimum wage bill has enough votes to pass the House this year, although he was less sure about the House prospects for mandatory sick leave.
Last year, Farrell introduced a similar minimum wage bill that never made it to a full floor vote, because the preliminary head count vote showed the bill falling a few votes short of the needed 50 to pass. Her new bill extended the phase-in period from three years to four years to give small businesses more time to prepare for the increases. In the Senate, the minimum wage increase has already picked up two Republican supporters, potentially a factor in the bill’s favor in the GOP-controlled body.
But there could still be plenty of drama – and political games – ahead for both bills.
Distributed by Crosscut Public Media