A day after Republicans in the U.S. Senate quashed an effort to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a proposal Thursday for a $15 municipal minimum wage that he said would "improve the lives of workers who can barely afford to live" in this high-tech city on Puget Sound.
Declaring it a "historic" day for progressives seeking to address the issue of income inequality, Murray laid out his complex and controversial proposal, which would be phased in over several years at different rates for large and small businesses. At least initially, income from tips and employer-provided health insurance would be taken into account.
If the City Council agrees, Murray said, Seattle will prove itself to be "an incubator of democracy," leading the national conversation to address "the growing problem of income inequality."
Murray invoked President Obama and Pope Francis as he introduced his plan.
The president, Murray said, has called the growing gap between rich and poor "one of the great issues of our time." The pope, the new mayor added, blames income inequality for "preventing us from fulfilling our responsibility to provide for the common good."
Increasing concern nationally about the rise in income inequality and the erosion of the middle class has led to a patchwork of efforts to improve worker pay. Low-wage workers in fast-food and other industries have led the way over the last two years, calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Cities and states have raised their minimum wages, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, West Virginia, New York, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. None has increased wages as high as $15. California's $8 minimum will rise to $9 on July 1.
Washington state has the highest state minimum in the country, at $9.37 an hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
San Francisco's minimum wage stands at $10.74. The Los Angeles City Council is debating a $15.37 minimum wage for hotel workers. The Bay Area city of Richmond, at next week's City Council meeting, will consider gradually raising its $9 municipal minimum wage to $12.30. Voters in the tiny city of SeaTac, Wash., recently approved a $15 minimum for certain workers in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport area.
The SeaTac proposal and pressure from its proponents helped make an increased minimum wage an integral part of the 2013 campaign for Seattle mayor and several City Council members.
Although Murray embraced the idea during his campaign that unseated Mike McGinn as mayor, it was local activist Kshama Sawant who made a $15 minimum the cornerstone of her successful run for City Council.
Sawant is Seattle's first socialist council member in about a century. Although she served on Murray's minimum-wage task force, which hammered out the proposal announced Thursday, Sawant said the measure did not go far enough.
"I don't support phasing in for big business," Sawant said. "Every year of a phase-in means yet another year in poverty for a worker."
Under the proposal, which heads to a council committee Monday, businesses with fewer than 500 workers nationally will have seven years to phase in the $15 minimum if they do not offer health insurance or tips. Those businesses that allow their workers to earn tips or offer healthcare coverage will have five years to meet the $15 minimum. But the $15 can be reached through a combination of tips, health coverage and wages.
Businesses with 500 or more employees nationally must pay workers the new minimum within three years. If employees are enrolled in company-subsidized healthcare coverage, the company has four years to phase in the new minimum wage.
Once the $15 minimum is reached, future pay increases will be tied to the consumer price index.
Representatives of business and labor were part of the task force that devised the proposal.
Sawant supports signature-gathering for a ballot initiative that would raise the city's minimum wage to $15 without a phase-in period, and without considering tips or healthcare coverage as part of the hourly income.
Business, she said, "lost its public battle on $15 and is now trying to water it down."