The Renton Reporter newspaper hosted a public forum regarding the minimum wage raise that will go before Renton voters in the Feb. 13 special election.
The Jan. 31 discussion at the Carco Theatre included two panels with community members from both sides of the issue, with the goal of addressing the nuances of the policy and dispelling misconceptions about the initiative.
Panelists who attended in support of Initiative 23-02 included: Guillermo Zazueta, chair of the Raise the Wage Renton, the campaign that wrote the policy and collected enough signatures to get it on the ballot; Michael Westgaard, a union steward of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 925 and another member of the Raise the Wage campaign; and Marley Rall, owner of Brewmaster Taproom in Renton.
Panelists who attended in opposition to the ballot measure included Diane Dobson, CEO of the Renton Chamber of Commerce; James Alberson Jr., Renton City Councilmember and business owner; and local business owner Ramandeep Mann, who owns Renton’s Happy Tails Animal Hospital.
When asked why it is the right time for Renton to implement a minimum wage raise that would be among the highest in the country, Westgaard pointed to the drastic increase in housing costs that have exacerbated the homelessness crisis. He said that while this policy will not solve all of those issues, it will help them “get caught up.”
Zazueta cited a statistic that in Renton, a minimum wage worker spends up to 60 percent of their total income on rent alone, and that according to a study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the same workers need to work 77 hours a week to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Renton.
Rall said that she supports the minimum wage raise because as a small business owner, she believes her employees need to be “happy and healthy at home” to support the operations of her business, and not be forced to have an unhealthy work-life balance because they would be struggling to afford the basic cost of living in the community. Ultimately, she said the welfare of her employees influences the satisfaction of her customers.
Conversely, Dobson said that a mandatory minimum wage raise would have “devastating consequences” for businesses still recovering from the effects of the pandemic. She said that many local businesses received little support during the pandemic years, which forced them to close and be in a constant state of flux. Furthermore, she said that the policy was written without any input or involvement from the business community or the city administration.
Alberson said he felt like this was the “wrong time” for this initiative and that he did not think it was “ever the right time” for a 25 percent increase in labor costs for a business to have to incur virtually overnight.
Mann said the measure would be “kneecapping” Renton and putting the community at a disadvantage when doing business with neighboring cities like Kent, Maple Valley and Covington. He also pointed out that the state has implemented a minimum wage of $16.28/hour that will adjust with inflation at the beginning of this year. He claimed that this Washington state minimum wage will already “address the problem,” as it will continue to go up.
If passed, Initiative Measure 23-02 would compel businesses in Renton that employ at least 15 employees, or have annual gross revenue of over $2 million, to pay employees a minimum of $20.29 per hour for large employers and $18.29 for smaller employers, according to the city. The lower wage would be phased in to equal that of large employers in two years, and the wage would be adjusted for inflation annually, according to the city’s website on the initiative.
If passed in the Feb. 13 election, the policy would take effect on July 1, 2024.
When asked about the impact this policy would have on local businesses, Alberson said that they would have no choice but to cut back on labor hours and have fewer employees do the same amount of work. He said the mandatory minimum wage would provide more incentive for employers to automate and reduce the number of jobs in the community while making Renton less attractive for businesses to set up shop.
Westgaard cited data from the city of Renton that found that 57,000 residents work outside of the city to “chase higher wages,” with many neighboring cities like SeaTac and Tukwila already having implemented minimum wages comparable to what Initiative 23-02 would mandate.
Zazueta cited data that showed nearly 1-in-3 workers in Renton make less than $20 an hour, and he made the argument that Renton is already losing skilled and competent workers to neighboring cities that offer higher wages.
Dobson said that if a business had a $300-per-hour labor budget, and had employees at a minimum wage of $16.29 an hour, they could afford to hire 18.75 employees. She said if you increase that minimum wage to $20.29 an hour, then that business can now only afford to hire 15 employees.
Michael Westgaard said that many of the arguments being made against Initiative 23-02 assumed the “worst-case scenario” when anticipating the impacts of the minimum wage raise.
Zazueta cited a phone survey by the American Council on Small Business that interviewed thousands of small businesses across the country, which suggested an increase in the minimum wage reduced employee turnover and absenteeism, and boosted consumer purchasing power and customer satisfaction.
Dobson raised an issue with some of the regulatory burdens placed on businesses by the policy in addition to the mandatory minimum wage. Specifically, she referred to a provision in the initiative that would prevent employers from hiring part-time employees without first offering hours to other part-time employees. She argued that this policy “doesn’t make sense” for many business models, using the example of a coffee shop that operates by layering many different part-time employees.
Alberson addressed the provision in the initiative that mandates a higher minimum wage for businesses that employ more than 15 employees, saying “nothing magical happens from the fourteenth to fifteenth employee, profits don’t double, your customers don’t triple, your expenses aren’t cut in half.” Alberson said this initiative to raise the minimum wage is a “Band-Aid” solution to a much larger problem, and that we should be addressing the “root of the problem.”
“How do we get more and more people in a position where they are not relegated to only minimum wage jobs,” Alberson said. “And that is through skills training.”
He spoke in favor of Renton offering free or subsidized job skills training, like the Renton Promise program. Alberson said he does not want people working minimum wage jobs perpetually and would like for folks to be able to develop their skills and experience economic mobility, rather than being “slightly more comfortable while struggling.”
For more information on Initiative 23-02, visit this link.