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Looking For A Middle Way On Raising Minimum Wage

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
A capacity crowd observed a state Senate panel debate several minimum wage proposals Monday in Olympia.

In Salem and Olympia, some lawmakers are looking for a middle way on raising the minimum wage. In both capitals, there's hope that a modest wage increase with business and labor support could head off or trump oncoming ballot measures.

In Olympia Monday, two moderate state senators teamed up to pitch an alternative minimum wage increase for Washington state voters to consider this November. Democrats Steve Hobbs and Mark Mullet told the Republican-controlled state Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Monday that their proposal phases in a statewide minimum of $12 per hour by the year 2020 and requires employers to provide paid sick leave.

"We've worked this out with business,” Hobbs said. “I know it probably goes too far for you. But it is something that some of the businesses can deal with and work with. I think that if an initiative were to pass, it would be far worse."

The incentive to draw business support is a provision to forbid local governments from passing higher wage minimums than the state. Cities such as Seattle, Tacoma and SeaTac that have already approved higher minimum wages would be grandfathered.

Union members who are backing a Washington initiative campaign said the proposed $12 per hour minimum wage is inadequate.

"Twelve dollars is not enough to get by on," testified in-home caregiver Sharon Kitchel of Olympia, who said she presently earns $12.20 per hour. "I can only afford to heat two rooms. Which two rooms do I heat?" she said about her small rental.

Lobbyists for the business community appeared divided.

The Washington Restaurant Association and Northwest Grocery Association spoke in support of a state minimum wage increase paired with preemption of local wage increases to achieve a consistent playing field. Other business groups voiced outright opposition or requested the inclusion of a lower "training wage."

The proposed ballot measure targeting the November 2016 general election is being organized by a campaign called "Raise Up Washington." It has backing from labor unions and allied community and faith groups.

Campaign consultant Christian Sinderman said in an interview Monday that the initiative backers are having "regular conversations" with state lawmakers who are trying to forge a compromise.

For now, Sinderman said petitioners for Raise Up Washington are aiming to hit the streets around the time the legislative session ends. Their measure would raise the statewide minimum wage to $13.50 per hour by 2020, but not preclude individual cities or counties from going higher. It would also mandate employers to provide sick leave.

In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown is pitching a plan that would raise the minimum wage to $9.75 per hour starting in July of this year. By 2022, that would increase to $14.50 per hour for the Portland metro area and $13.25 per hour for the rest of the state. The governor's proposal gets its first public hearing at the capitol Tuesday.

Two groups are circulating separate initiatives in Oregon that would raise the state's wage as high as $15 per hour. The two initiatives would do so in a shorter time period than the governor's proposal.

The current minimum wage in Washington is $9.47 per hour and in Oregon it's $9.25 per hour.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.