The Tacoma City Council is gearing up to take on minimum wage.
Last week, Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Pierson wrote a letter to Mayor Marilyn Strickland citing concerns over the ‘15 Now’ campaign, calling it “just too extreme.”
“We believe, if passed, it will be bad for our economy, hurt small businesses and, in the end, will be bad for workers,” Pierson wrote.
Taking a preemptive approach, Pierson proposes looking at alternative solutions, similar to what has been passed in Seattle. He said he acknowledged the need to address the minimum wage in Tacoma and that businesses would support a “more carefully crafted” alternative.
“Even in Seattle, where the median household income is 30 percent higher than in Tacoma, the city council opted to increase its minimum wage in phases over up to seven years,” Pierson wrote. “Currently, the $11 an hour rate they will be at on January 1, 2016, when Tacoma’s initiative would take effect, is $4 an hour less than what is being proposed in Tacoma.”
In a survey conducted by the Chamber of Commerce, respondents were about 50/50 on whether they supported the 15 Now campaign. About 65 percent, Pierson said, were in support of the state’s $12 minimum wage proposal.
“That tells me people want to see something different,” Pierson said.
The letter prompted Mayor Marilyn Strickland and the city council to create a 13-member “Minimum Wage Task Force,” consisting of one member nominated by each council member and four nominated by the mayor from various business and citizen groups.
‘I think that it’s really important here that we talk to different folks who have different perspectives to make sure we’re capturing the sentiments of as many people as possible in this community,” Strickland said.
For the moment, Strickland has few details on what the council’s minimum wage proposal would look like, if it comes up with one. But the resolution echoes Pierson’s comments that the 15 Now proposal is “too extreme.” However, she wouldn’t go as far to say that Tacoma would look at mimicking Seattle’s minimum wage.
“Tacoma’s economy is a little different, so we have to understand we have to do what works for our economy and do something that meets the needs of as many people as possible,” Strickland said.
Councilmember Ryan Mello, who noted that his progressive values were no secret, said he wanted to see the minimum wage applied across the board.
“I don’t know what that new minimum wage should be. … I don’t know how many months or years it should take to get to that new wage,” said Mello. “I do know that any way we do choose to raise the wages in this community should not include loopholes, should not create second class workers, should not create schemes to exempt classes of workers and should not make calculating the wage more complicated, unpredictable for both workers and business owners.”
In a phone interview, Pierson noted that conversations had barely begun, but said that he was in support of having training wages.
Area businesses are keeping a keen eye on the discussions. Debbie Brese, owner and general manager of Tacoma’s Cloverleaf Pizza, for example, said that, if passed, the 15 Now proposal would increase her payroll by 27 percent, based on 2014 figures.
“And that doesn’t even take into account the collateral damage of the vendors who supply me and would also have to raise a lot of their rates,” she said. “Everyone is unsure the collateral damage, because we can’t account for how other companies run their stuff. My guesstimation is it’s going to be at least another 10 or 15 percent, because there’s no way they can eat it (the sudden wage increase).”
Moreover, she said, she’d likely have to take the money for $15 minimum wage from bonuses, holiday parties and other benefits. Or worse, she may have to lay people off.
“Where else am I going to get the money?” she said. “I worry about the 28 employees I have, of them being able to keep their jobs. We’re like family here. They take care of me, I take care of them, and I would like them to be able to continue to live in Tacoma.”
While Brese said she would prefer a statewide measure to pass, she said she would support an incremental increase, like Seattle. That way, she can ease customers into slightly higher prices and she can account for the changes in her budget with relative ease.
“An alternative where we can ease into higher minimum wage, I’m all for it … That’s something I can plan for and foresee and work with and it wouldn’t bankrupt my business,” she said.
Frustration is simmering on both sides. During public comment at last week’s city council meeting, several 15 Now advocates expressed frustration with what they perceived as a dismissal of their efforts. Several said they wanted a seat on the task force, but that has yet to be determined.
“I don’t think that ‘Tacoma is a cheaper version of Seattle’ is a winning strategy,” said one 15 Now advocate, who ceded that conversation and compromise were positive things. “Tom Pierson of the Chamber of Commerce acknowledged publicly that the people of Tacoma want a higher minimum wage. When the Chamber of Commerce representative is acknowledging that, then it is clearly time.”