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May 15, 2014 at 4:21 PM

Murray adds a ‘training wage’ to $15 minimum wage proposal

UPDATE: L&I spokesman Matthew Erlich said the training wage exemption program is so rarely used that no businesses applied for it in 2014, and it covers just 200 workers statewide. The only certificate L&I staff immediately knew of was issued to Columbia River Academy, which appears to be a Seventh Day Adventist private school in Kettle Falls.

Businesses are allowed to pay “handicapped” (the state’s language, not mine) or student learners 75 percent of the minimum wage; adult learners must be paid 85 percent, according to the application form. An exemption is good for two years, but can be renewed.

ORIGINAL POST: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray revealed plans this week to add a training wage element to the $15 minimum wage proposal he announced on May 1. This marks a significant change, because organized labor opposes a training wage, and Murray’s $15 phase-in proposal was the product of four months of intense negotiations with union and business leaders.

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)

In a meeting on Tuesday with The Seattle Times editorial board, Murray said his $15 wage proposal would use a little-known state law that grants discretion to the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries to issue certificates exempting some “learners” or “apprentices” for a limited amount of hours. Murray said Seattle would “work with folks” to get appropriate applications approved in Olympia. He said:

We put it in the language since the agreement came out. I’ve committed that this city will advocate to get those certificates for that period of time. It’s something that initially we couldn’t get labor to agree to. I’m not sure we got them there, but we did it anyway.

City of Seattle staff said L&I has issued just five such certificates. I’m waiting on a call back from L&I to explain who they are, and how the certificates work. An analysis by state legislative staff described this provision as allowing employers who get an L&I certificate to pay “learners, student workers, apprentices and individuals impaired by age or physical or mental deficiency or injury” a sub-minimum wage for “a fixed period of time.”

How this element would work is unclear. If L&I has approved just five certificates, as Seattle staff suggest, it may be very difficult to get.

A training wage advocated for by OneSeattle, a business coalition which supports a $15 wage with caveats. But I’ve found the most persuasive proponents of a temporary training wage to be a coalition of ethnic minority chambers of commerce, who describe it as a means to encourage hiring of immigrants and workers with limited English. They published a letter laying out their concerns in the Northwest Asian Weekly.

Taylor Hoang, owner of the Pho Cyclo restaurants, said a three-month training period for her new employees often includes instruction in using an Orca card to ride the bus, and learning how to read equipment instruction manuals written in English — a language many of them can’t yet read. “A training wage is very important. It opens the door to let people get into the work force,” she said.

Murray didn’t elaborate on his discussions with labor about the new training wage wrinkle. Unions generally dislike a training wage, in part because it’s open to abuse: a “temporary” designation could get stretched. Murray, in comments to the editorial board, said he’d “actively work with those companies” to make sure the law was enforced.

David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775 and co-chair of Murray’s minimum wage committee, indicated in an email that he could live with the idea.

We have said all along that what’s important is to leave in place the current state definition of wages. And as we understand it, the Mayor’s proposal is consistent with the state minimum wage definition.

This is a smart addition by Murray, for policy and political reasons. A training wage may help the stubbornly high unemployment rate for young entry-level workers, who likely would find their job prospects squeezed even tighter by a $15 wage. Who would hire a 17-year-old kid for a $15-an-hour job?

Politically, Murray is giving the business community one less concern — particularly among the ethnic minority chambers of commerce — to actively oppose the Mayor’s proposal via a ballot measure. If it isn’t toxic enough for labor to break from the Mayor’s $15 coalition, Murray may have hit a sweet spot of deal-making.



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