Business Columns & Blogs

Bill Virgin: Seattle’s minimum wage debate tugs at all of regional economy’s purse strings

We know that the study of the intricacies, oddities and lunacies of Seattle politics is not your preferred option for occupying your time on a Sunday — or any day.

But the subject does merit your attention even if, maybe especially if, you don’t happen to live in Seattle, when it comes to the specific issue of the $15-an-hour minimum wage.

What Seattle does or doesn’t do, and when, on proposals to set a municipal minimum wage that is 61 percent higher than the state minimum (which happens to be the nation’s highest) holds major implications for other towns in the region, and for Washington as a whole.

The implications could be bad if, as sometimes happens, a bad idea that incubates in Seattle spreads like a flu bug to the rest of the idea, and Seattle is growing bad ideas like a refrigerator left unplugged in a heat wave.

It’s also potentially bad news for the workers the $15-an-hour movement purports to help, not only by limiting the number of jobs available at that price point but significantly raising what’s expected of those who do snag one of those jobs.

But there are also some opportunities, for communities that aren’t Seattle, and for entry-level and minimum-wage workers who aren’t seeking work in Seattle.

A quick recap: A Seattle city council member has been pushing the idea of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with the threat of a petition drive (now underway) to put the idea on the ballot if council doesn’t act.

Seattle’s mayor did the typical Seattle thing — convene a task force to come up with a proposal that could accommodate the wishes of various groups to avoid alienating any large segment of the electorate. What the mayor is proposing also is typical Seattle — a convoluted matrix with a phase-in period and minimum wage variances depending on the size of the business and health benefits paid. The whole mess is in the hands of a council committee.

Just how this issue resolves itself is where the contemplation of Seattle politics comes in. Will the mayor’s proposal or the $15-an-hour-for-everyone-now camp prevail, or will the issue become as stuck as the tunnel drilling machine? Will the Seattle electorate endorse a $15 minimum wage, if it gets to them?

By the way, if you’re wondering why this sort of debate isn’t going on in Portland, a city that wouldn’t take kindly to the notion that it is somehow less “progressive” than Seattle, it’s because the city can’t enact its own minimum. While the issue has been raised there, Oregon state law “preempts all charter and statutory authority of local governments to set any minimum wage requirements.”

There’s been some talk of a $15-an-hour minimum in Tacoma as well, although the issue hasn’t advanced nearly as far as in Seattle.

And maybe it won’t out here in the hinterlands. Businesses are unlikely to look upon the proposal favorably, recognizing that a hike to $15 brings with it additional costs beyond the basic per-hour calculation.

Public officials and those involved in economic development may cheer passage in Seattle even as they oppose the idea locally, figuring there are some opportunities to lure businesses that will be priced out of Seattle to their communities.

Even workers themselves may decide that a $15 minimum wage might be too costly for them. Employers are saying that a $15-an-hour minimum-wage job is, paradoxically, no longer an entry-level position, and that at that level of pay workers will be expected to come in the door with some expertise, experience and skill.

Furthermore, a $15 wage floor in Seattle might provide room for other communities to approve a minimum that is higher than the current amount — such as $10.10 an hour, the president’s proposed minimum — but still comfortably under what Seattle is mandating.

It’s possible that the issue won’t get nearly that far. In Switzerland, voters recently rejected a proposal to raise the minimum wage there to the equivalent of $25 an hour, the highest in the world.

It’s a good thing the Swiss voted as they did, for if they had ratified the increase some elements in Seattle would be hastily revising their campaign to $25 Now, not wishing to be left behind.

The debate in Seattle now is whether to drive toward the $15-an-hour cliff moderately and with some starts and stops, or to floor it now. The rest of the region, however, may well figure it’s better served by climbing out of the car, watching what happens, and waving Seattle on its journey with encouraging cheers of “Have a nice trip!”

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at