Minimum-wage earners work hard for a living, but seldom harder than they did the past several weeks. Whether dispensing festive drinks at drive-through windows or restocking Christmas sale racks at department stores, thousands of hospitality and retail workers toiled long hours to keep the South Sound’s holiday season economy humming.
We should appreciate their elf-like efforts, and be glad for them that they’re now receiving a belated reward.
On Jan. 1, Washington’s minimum wage went up by 50 cents, to $12 an hour. Those who work in Tacoma got an even bigger sweetener. The city’s wage floor, already at $12, rose to $12.35 an hour, thanks to an inflationary adjustment that was part of the phased-in minimum wage hike approved by Tacoma voters in 2015.
This is the last year that Tacoma’s rate will surpass the state’s, barring another change in the topsy-turvy labor landscape, which means Tacoma will revert to the state minimum wage in 2020. (Workers are always paid whichever rate is higher.)
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When Washington voters approved Initiative 1433 in 2016, they triggered a series of bumps to the minimum wage topping out at $13.50 an hour in 2020.
That ballot measure also gave workers across Washington a valuable new benefit that was already in place in Tacoma: one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked.
Tacoma voters should be credited for helping set the sick-pay trend, just as they did the higher minimum wage. It’s a godsend for low-income workers who historically have gone to work ill or had to take unpaid time off to care for themselves or an ailing family member.
For those who need longer-term relief, a long-awaited new program allows as many as 12 to 16 weeks of paid family leave. Washington employers and employees will start contributing to the program now, though workers can’t use it until 2020.
These are watershed achievements for a workplace-equity movement that’s chalking up more and more of them.
Across the country, the new year ushered in minimum-wage hikes in 20 states; that includes voter-approved increases in the red states of Arizona, Arkansas and Missouri.
All told, the push for livable wages in recent years has netted a collective $68 billion raise for 22 million low-paid workers in both the public and private sectors, according to a new analysis by the National Employment Law Center.
Specifically, the Fight for 15 movement, which began to catch fire in 2012, helped place wage growth on a steady upward trajectory. That’s certainly true in Tacoma, where activists in the “15 Now” campaign forced an important conversation four years ago by demanding an immediate minimum-wage leap from $9.47 to $15 an hour.
“Wishful thinking” was how this editorial board described it. But the crusade led to the phased-in $12 compromise, which the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce supported, as did voters in the November 2015 election.
The jury is still out on the costs versus the benefits of governments jacking up wage floors, and how high is too high. Academic studies of Seattle’s $15 minimum wage offer conflicting pictures of whether it’s having a positive or negative impact on low-end workers.
Don’t expect any enlightening data in Tacoma — not after the City Council decided last fall to scrap a minimum-wage study that the 2015 ballot measure called for.
Regardless, market forces will often take matters into their own hands, as Amazon did last fall by saying it would start paying its workers no less than $15 an hour.
But make no mistake: During this time of Washington D.C. gridlock, and in the face of dubious decisions like President Trump’s pay freeze for federal workers, many Americans are still waiting to see growth in real wages.
Hope burns brightest at the state and local level — and down in the grassroots.