Tacoma mayor, Chamber agree to work on alternative to $15 minimum wage

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, at the urging of a leading business group, agreed Tuesday to work toward a ballot measure that provides a gradual increase to the city’s minimum wage.

The creation of the Tacoma Minimum Wage Task Force is the first organized response to 15 Now Tacoma, an advocacy group gathering signatures for a ballot measure in the fall that would raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 for all businesses with gross revenues of $300,000 or more, with no phase-in or exceptions based on a business’s number of employees.

Strickland took up the challenge issued by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, which sent her a letter on Monday asking her to create a stakeholder group to find a “right-sized local solution” to raising the wage.

A volunteer for 15 Now Tacoma said the city group must have a member from the 15 Now Tacoma campaign since it was the campaign that forced the issue. Advocates called for a higher minimum wage repeatedly during council meetings throughout the fall. In October, the group delivered a petition with more than 1,000 signatures that asked the council to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“We’ve been working on this for more than a year. We have to be a part of it,” said Sarah Morken, a volunteer for 15 Now Tacoma. “Otherwise it looks like the only way you can get any action out of the City Council is if you’re the Chamber and have money, and aren’t just regular workers like us.”

On Tuesday, Strickland said no one from 15 Now Tacoma asked her for a meeting to discuss raising the minimum wage. She wouldn’t directly say if 15 Now Tacoma would be invited to participate in the task force. “I want this to be a big tent with all members at the table,” she said Tuesday. She did say she would like to see a minimum-wage worker in the group.

The council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday night that forms the task force. It will have 13 members, one each selected by each council member and the mayor. Strickland will pick four more to round out what she said will be a diverse group representing many interests.

The task force would be charged with submitting recommendations to the council by June 30.

Tacoma is just the third city in Washington to move toward a higher minimum wage. The cities of SeaTac and Seattle both have laws requiring a minimum wage higher than the state’s rate of $9.47 an hour. Seattle’s took effect a month ago and requires businesses to reach $15 an hour by 2021, with large companies required to get there sooner.

There seems to be room for compromise. Chamber CEO Tom Pierson said it’s clear that people want to see a higher minimum wage, though $15 an hour is too much for Tacoma. Businesses also need time to phase in the increase. Morken said 15 Now Tacoma could withdraw its measure if the city’s task force comes up with something “acceptable,” though she said it was “too early” to say what that means.

Pierson said the Chamber conducted a poll of about 400 people last month about 15 Now Tacoma’s ballot measure. It showed respondents were evenly split on the matter. A statewide solution would be best, he said, to avoid having wages dictated city by city.

A bill raising the state’s minimum wage to $12 passed the state House during the regular session, but stalled in the Senate. Republicans in the Senate have suggested they might support an increase in the minimum wage as part of a compromise that addresses their priorities, such as creating a special lower wage for trainees or teenagers.

Among the businesses that worry the most about raising the minimum wage are restaurants.

A $15 hourly wage would “backfire and hurt the people (the advocates) are trying to help,” said Debbie Brese, owner of The Cloverleaf, a Tacoma pizza institution. She has 28 employees who now have some paid vacation and holiday bonuses. Such a drastic increase in wages so quickly would force her to cut those benefits and raise prices, she said.

The 15 Now Tacoma ballot measure is affecting business already, some say. Dan Briggs is a Tacoma native who returned from the San Francisco area a few years ago with plans to open his own deli in Seattle. When he saw how much downtown Tacoma had improved, he and his wife turned their focus there. Having to pay $15 an hour would force them to look elsewhere, he said.

“If it went to $15 or maybe even $12, I really would have to look at Lakewood or Fife,” he said. “Somewhere where I can be close to where I live but also have a viable business.”

Raising the minimum wage would bring relief to working people, said the Rev. Gregory Christopher of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. According to 2013 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, some 18 percent of Tacomans lived below the federal poverty level at some point during the year, compared with 13.4 percent of all Washingtonians.

People with more money in their pockets would help local businesses grow, Christopher said.

“Tacoma shouldn’t be afraid to take this challenge on,” he said. “We need to look at the big picture: If citizens are healthy, financially and physically and spiritually, this will be a thriving city.”