Many Washington residents struggle to get by on the state’s $9.47 per hour minimum wage. It goes up by six cents in January, but that won’t solve the pocketbook problems facing low-wage workers.
Initiative 1433 grew out of failed talks at the Legislature to find a middle ground for raising the wage floor. Advocates backed by money from labor unions and about $1 million from wealthy businessman Nick Hanauer collected signatures to qualify Initiative 1433 for the Nov. 8 ballot.
In a nutshell, I-1433 would phase in a higher minimum wage for workers age 18 or older — raising it uniformly across the state in four yearly steps to $13.50 by Jan. 1, 2020. The first increase to $11 in January would be 15 percent higher than the $9.53 rate already set to take effect on New Year’s Day.
Cities are free under the measure to go higher, and a few are doing that already. Seattle and SeaTac are raising their wage floors to $15 an hour over several years, and Tacoma agreed to phase in a $12 per hour minimum by January 2018.
I-1433 takes a leap into uncharted waters by putting our state’s wage higher than any other state, and it includes a paid sick leave provision. I-1433 breaks a political logjam on both issues.
Based on recent polling reports, voters are likely to pass it.
The sick leave piece is less talked about. It requires employers to provide up to an hour of paid leave for every 40 hours an employee works. This will be a godsend for many low-wage workers. It was the tipping point that earned our support.
Unfortunately, the initiative is only a partial answer to the challenges facing low-wage workers. Better job training, education and new ways to get resources into the hands of poor but hardworking families are also needed to fix a problem that is national and global.
One such solution, which state lawmakers approved years ago, is a working-families tax rebate. The Legislature authorized the rebate in 2008 but never funded it. The rebate would give a small state match of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit that many low-wage families qualify to receive — much as the carbon-tax measure, Initiative 732, would do this year.
This would raise up low-wage workers earnings without the threats to jobs that opponents of I-1433 are warning against.
We don’t entirely buy arguments from critics that a higher wage floor means fewer jobs. We’re equally skeptical of advocates’ sunny claims that Seattle’s booming economy, which is adding jobs despite a higher minimum wage, is proof that higher wages generate more employment.
It’s also unclear to us that a single wage is the right solution statewide. Oregon has higher rates for Portland’s metro areas, for examples. But I-1433 backers make a reasonable point: $13.50 is a new state standard that localities are free to exceed.
Whatever voters decide, policymakers should remember that there are other ways to help working families support themselves in the Northwest’s high-priced economy.