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May 7, 2014 at 6:25 AM

The big exemption in Mayor Ed Murray’s minimum wage proposal

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announces a $15 minimum wage plan. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announces a $15 minimum wage plan. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

UPDATE, 12:30 p.m., 5/8/14: Five months into the Seattle $15 minimum-wage debate, the potential ripple effects are still being discerned. On Wednesday, nonprofit human-services providers described the complications — and benefits — of a higher wage at a Seattle City Council meeting. Nonprofit leaders lamented the industry’s low pay scale, and praised the potential for a higher wage to lift their own workers out of near-poverty.

But for the nonprofits to pay for higher wages with cuts services, other governments — particularly the state — would have to pay part of bill. Getting a Legislature consumed with boosting education spending to pay for Seattle’s radical wage experiment would be a very hard political “lift,” as they say in Olympia.

To tease out other potential consequences and benefits, join The Seattle Times opinion section next Wednesday, May 14, at noon, for a Google Hangout discussion on the minimum wage. We’ll have a variety of perspectives for a live conversation, hosted by Seattle Times opinion writer Thanh Tan. Join us.

ORIGINAL POST: When Seattle Mayor Ed Murray proudly stated last week that his minimum wage proposal has “no exemptions,” he apparently exempted one big group: other public sector workers.

Murray’s spokesman, Jeff Reading, said the proposed $15 minimum wage legislation being sent to the City Council would exclude other “governmental entities.”

In an e-mail, Reading said:

Other governmental entities will be excluded.  The language of our proposed ordinance will likely include:

“For the purposes of this Chapter, ‘employer’ does not include any of the following:

  • The United States government;
  • The State of Washington, including any office, department, agency, authority, institution, association, society or other body of the state, including the legislature and the judiciary; and
  • Any county or local government other than the City.”

The reason for this is clear: the City of Seattle doesn’t have wage pre-emption authority over other public entities. This issue is central to the pending lawsuit over the SeaTac $15 wage, with opponents contending the City of SeaTac cannot dictate wages to the Port of Seattle (which owns airport).

Reading said Murray would “encourage other jurisdictions to opt-in.”

How many federal, state, county and port workers this exemption covers is unclear. But it includes the city’s largest public-sector employer, the University of Washington.

UW spokesman Norm Arkans said a preliminary analysis showed that about 3,000 workers may qualify — about 10 percent of the UW’s total staff. The cost of immediately increasing wages to $15 would be roughly $3.8 million, Arkans said. That figure does not include wages currently at $15 that may also rise as lower-skilled workers get raises.

Arkans said the UW was interested in raising wages to $15 an hour, but there was no specific plan to do so, and none is likely to emerge until the end of the academic year.

“In the spirit of what the city is doing, we’d try to reach a similar benchmark,” said Arkans. “We want to pay our people well. There are always limitations to that, because money doesn’t grow on trees.”

According to the UW’s job openings website, cooks at Harborview Medical Center start at about $12.50 an hour. Custodians, library support staff and research assistants all start less than $15 an hour.

About three percent of King County’s work force – 400 employees, mostly temporary or seasonal staff – make less than $15 an hour now, but all will be at or above $15 by July, said Chad Lewis, spokesman for county executive Dow Constantine. The only exceptions will be people in county-managed, human services job readiness training, such as at-risk youth building trails.

Comments | Topics: ed murray, minimum wage

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