Politics & Government

$15 minimum wage could be on Tacoma ballot in 2015

Tacoma could be the state’s latest battleground for a $15 minimum wage.

The activist group 15 Now Tacoma filed a citizens initiative last month with the city clerk’s office.

City Clerk Doris Sorum said those who find fault with the ballot title can file with Pierce County Superior Court through Dec. 19. If the title remains unchallenged, the group can begin collecting signatures on Dec. 20.

The group has to collect at least 3,160 signatures by mid-June. Once the signatures are deemed valid, the City Council can elect to pass the measure as written. If the council doesn’t act, voters would decide the issue next November.

Washington state’s minimum wage is the highest of any state at $9.32, or $19,385 for a full-time job. Full-time workers who earn $15 per hour make $31,200.

Sarah Morken, an activist with the 15 Now campaign, said women and people of color are most likely to benefit from a minimum wage increase.

“We know raising the minimum wage has not historically had a negative effect on the economy,” Morken said. “Working-class people spend all of their money, and they are going to be spending money in those small businesses.”

According to the proposed ballot measure, businesses making gross revenues of $300,000 per year or less would not have to pay a $15 minimum wage.

That means almost every business that operates in Tacoma would have to pay its workers the minimum wage, said Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber.

“You’re talking about your mom and pop businesses, your restaurants, those are all the ones who this directly affects,” Pierson said.

The city minimum wage would also receive a cost-of-living increase each year based on price increases in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area. Pierson said it’s unfair to lump Tacoma’s economic growth with Seattle and Bellevue’s.

But Morken said 15 Now Tacoma learned from mistakes in SeaTac and Seattle, which both have a $15 minimum wage law. SeaTac’s law doesn’t cover union workers, and Seattle’s law takes too long to kick in, Morken said.

In Seattle, “small businesses” with fewer than 500 employees must pay $15 per hour by 2019. Companies with more employees must phase in the $15 wage by 2017. Lower wages can be paid for longer if the employer also provides benefits to workers, such as health insurance.

Morken said the group also wanted Tacoma’s $15 minimum wage requirement to have more teeth.

The proposal states that if employers fail to pay the minimum wage, bosses could face jail time and fines. If more than $5,000 is withheld from an employee, a boss could face a felony first-degree theft charge, according to the proposal. Fines would amount to $100 per day per employee for a first offense.

The minimum wage would be enforced by the city’s finance director, who would also write an annual report for the City Council. The law would establish a seven-member minimum wage commission, which would be tasked with reviewing the city’s enforcement of the wage.

The minimum wage proposal would apply to anyone who works in the city of Tacoma.

City Councilman Anders Ibsen said he believes the issue will reach the ballot, both because the council tends to defer to voters on citizen initiatives and because the threshold for signatures is so low in Tacoma.

“The citizens deserve a chance to look at it and decide for themselves,” he said.

Morken said the group filed the petition because they felt they had a better chance of passing a strong $15 minimum wage law quicker than by lobbying the City Council.