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Originally published Monday, March 17, 2014 at 9:15 PM

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Sawant suggests $15 wage phase-in for some

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposes a three-year phase-in of a $15-an-hour minimum wage for small businesses and nonprofits.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Just days after her political organization, 15 Now, said there would be no compromises on the demand for a $15 minimum wage for all workers, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed a phased-in approach for small businesses.

Speaking at a march and rally Saturday for a $15 minimum wage in the city, Sawant said she would propose a three-year phase-in for small businesses and human-service organizations. For them, that would raise minimum wages to $11 in 2015. with $2 step increases each of the next two years.

She said she would make the recommendation to Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, which is supposed to come up with a minimum-wage proposal by the end of April or face an initiative campaign by 15 Now. Sawant is on that committee.

“[The] mayor said he is concerned about very small businesses,” Sawant said. “Let’s take that off the table here today. Let’s support both small businesses and human services by phasing them in over three years. This is our proposal.”

Murray’s committee meets again March 26 to hear consultants’ final reports on the potential economic impacts of increasing the minimum wage. On March 31, the committee is scheduled to identify options for its final proposal, which is expected by the end of April.

The City Council, which also is considering the issue, must approve a wage ordinance for it to take effect. Alternatively, it could submit its own measure to voters in November.

Both union and business representatives participating on the mayor’s committee welcomed Sawant’s proposal, but warned that there would be many competing plans put forward and complicated negotiations before a final recommendation is reached.

“When you only have two positions — 15 and Now — and you’re backing off on the Now, maybe that means $15 is on the table, too,” said Dave Meinert, owner of several restaurants, including Big Mario’s Pizza and Lost Lake Cafe. “It’s good that they’re recognizing that there may be real harm if this proposal isn’t done right.”

David Rolf, president of Service Employees International Union 775 NW and a co-chair of the mayor’s committee, said making a distinction between small and large businesses may make sense. About 75 percent of businesses in Seattle have fewer than 10 employees, but they employ only about 12 percent of the total workforce in the city, according to preliminary research done for the committee by the University of Washington’s Evans School for Public Policy.

But Rolf also cautioned that many labor leaders would question whether costs of living are any different for a worker at a small business versus a worker at a large one.

“My reaction as a co-chair is that all proposals and all ideas are welcome,” Rolf said.

At public forums and in subcommittee meetings of the mayor’s task force over the past several weeks, small-business owners, particularly restaurateurs, have raised an outcry over the possibility of an increase to $15 an hour in 2015 and said they would have to raise prices, lay off employees or even shut down.

A coalition of 28 Seattle social-service organizations also recently said the government would have to come up with an additional $11 million in annual funding if they were to pay all their employees $15 an hour.

Louise Chernin, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Business Association, an LGBT business organization, questioned where Sawant would draw the line for a small business.

“How can you say 12 (employees) is not small, but 10 is? At some point, you’re setting an artificial limit,” Chernin said.

Sawant plans to come up with that number in the coming days, in consultation with small-businesses, unions and the mayor’s committee.

Chernin said a recent survey of more than 120 members found support for a phase-in of at least three years, but even stronger support for taking into account workers’ total benefits packages, including health care, bonuses, retirement benefits, tips and commissions.

Sawant’s political supporters say counting benefits in lieu of higher hourly pay is not acceptable. But they don’t want concern about small businesses to undermine support for a $15 minimum wage.

Jess Spear, the organizing director for 15 Now, said the majority of low-wage workers don’t work for small businesses.

“Big-box stores and national corporations like McDonald’s and Target can afford to pay a $15 minimum wage January 1, 2015, and we think they should,” Spear said.

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes



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