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Originally published March 24, 2014 at 7:27 PM | Page modified March 24, 2014 at 8:44 PM

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Study: $15 wage floor would lift pay for 24% of Seattle workers

About 102,000 workers citywide earn below $15 an hour. They, as well as the next tier of workers, could see an increase if the minimum is raised to $15, says a UW study prepared for the city.


Seattle Times business reporter

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Nearly one in four workers in Seattle could be poised for a pay raise if the city enacts a $15 minimum wage, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Washington.

The report estimates that a $15 minimum wage would match or exceed the current hourly pay of about 102,000 workers citywide, including 38,000 who make the state-mandated standard of $9.32 an hour.

That means 24 percent of Seattle workers would be directly affected by a $15 wage floor, data show.

If workers who now make between $15 and $18 an hour also got a pay raise to stay ahead of a higher minimum wage, the potential pool of affected people would jump to 136,000 — nearly a third of Seattle’s workforce.

The report, to be presented Wednesday at a meeting of Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, provides new details on the size and characteristics of the low-wage working population in Seattle.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs analyzed census data to give a sense of who would be affected by a $15 minimum wage. And for the most part, they found few surprises.

While Seattle’s low-wage workers on average are less educated and slightly younger than the overall population, 60 percent have at least some college education, and about a fifth are aged 45 and over, according to the report.

Women and minorities are disproportionately represented among workers earning minimum wage, but whites are a 58 percent majority, and women drop to a 49 percent minority among those paid between $12.13 and $15 an hour.

Also, the UW researchers found that Seattle’s minimum-wage earners are twice as likely as workers overall to hold part-time jobs: 35 percent work part time, compared with 15 percent of all workers.

The report, requested and paid for by the city, offers a rare statistical look at who makes less than $15 an hour and where they work.

But a large portion of the report is based on data from 2007 — before the Great Recession.

Co-author Marieka Klawitter, a professor at the Evans School of Public Affairs, says that after 2007 the census stopped gathering crucial data on the exact number of hours worked in a week. As a result, 2007 is the most recent year for which data is available to estimate who in Seattle makes between $9.32 and $15 an hour, adjusted for inflation, she said.

She added that today’s low-wage workers resemble yesterday’s low-wage workers, despite the recession.

“I think most of the general lessons are going to be the same,” she said. “The characteristics of people who earn the most or least don’t change quickly.”

By far, the industry most affected by a minimum-wage increase would be Seattle’s hotels and restaurants.

A quarter of Seattle residents who make minimum wage work in the accommodation and food-services industry, while 17 percent are in retail and 13 percent are in health care and social assistance, Klawitter said.

What’s more, 82 percent of employers in the hotel and food-services sector say at least a third of their workers make $15 an hour or less. (Whether that includes tips is a bit unclear: While survey participants are asked to include bonuses and tips for hourly pay, those tend to be underreported, Klawitter said.)

Only 2 percent of government employers, by contrast, pay a third or more of their workers $15 or less.

Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association, says a $15 minimum wage, “if done poorly,” would hurt many businesses. He opposes an immediate, across-the-board hike that doesn’t recognize workers’ ability to supplement their wages with tips, or the costs to employers of providing health-care benefits.

“There’s no greater threat to the industry than if this is done poorly,” Anton said. “But I’m encouraged that the mayor is trying to do this the right way. Hopefully, we can find a way to broaden the circle of prosperity and not have a tremendous impact on small business.”

The push for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle gained momentum after voters in SeaTac in November narrowly approved a ballot measure to boost pay for airport-related workers.

The Seattle mayor’s task force on income inequality is supposed to come up with a proposal by the end of April. Some proponents of a $15 minimum wage are organizing to put an initiative on the ballot if they don’t like that proposal.

The City Council, which would need to approve a wage ordinance for it to take effect, also is considering the issue.

The UW researchers estimate that about 101,000 Seattle residents make $15 or less. Of those, 59 percent work in Seattle, while 13 percent work elsewhere in King County, and 28 percent work outside of the county.

A main point of contention is whether the minimum wage is a smart way to reduce poverty. And the report seems to provide grist for both sides of the debate.

Critics say a big problem for poor families is the lack of full-time, year-round work, and what they really need are jobs, not a minimum-wage increase.

Supporters of a $15 minimum wage counter that it would raise family incomes after a decade of stagnant pay and improve living standards for the working poor.

Mayor Murray took the latter view, saying in a statement late Monday the report “tells us that raising the minimum wage could significantly reduce poverty in our community.”

In fact, 40 percent of Seattle’s minimum-wage earners live in families at or below the federal poverty level — even if only 8 percent receive food stamps and 2 percent are on welfare, according to the report.

Mesfin Tessema, 36, makes between $12 and $13 an hour as a certified nursing assistant at two local nursing homes — one in Ballard, the other in Shoreline. He said he works full time at both jobs just to make ends meet, and hopes a $15 minimum wage becomes reality.

“It would make a big difference. I could work one full-time job and make the other one part time,” said Tessema, who lives in a small North Seattle apartment with his girlfriend and a young daughter. “I could get some rest and spend some time with my family.”

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

On Twitter: @amyemartinez



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