The Olympia City Council has taken a small but symbolic step toward figuring out what it would take to raise the city’s minimum wage.
The council held a study session Tuesday that attracted a few dozen supporters led by Working Washington, a group advocating for a $15 minimum wage and better working conditions in Olympia and beyond.
Earlier this week, Councilman Jim Cooper introduced legislation to council colleagues that would raise the minimum wage in Olympia to $15 an hour.
The proposal calls for phasing in the $15 wage over two years for large companies and over four years for smaller companies. Other aspects include mandatory paid “sick and safe time” for all workers, and ensuring more compatibility between employees’ work schedules and personal time.
Cooper crafted the proposal with Working Washington and several labor unions.
At Tuesday’s session, he cited data from Working Washington, which reported that Olympia has more low-wage workers in retail and hospitality sectors — 19.1 percent of the workforce — compared with government workers, who represent 17.3 percent of the workforce.
In addition, Working Washington reports that 33 percent of Olympia’s workforce earns less than $15 an hour, with 19 percent of people earning less than $12 an hour.
“This is the most complex social justice issue of our time,” Cooper said Tuesday, noting that $15 per hour is only a suggested goal for a higher minimum wage. “I’d like to see Olympia move ahead with its conversation and research.”
No action was taken at Tuesday’s study session. City Manager Steve Hall reviewed scenarios in other cities, including Tacoma, where voters will decide Nov. 3 on two ballot measures that would raise the minimum wage to either $12 or $15 an hour. Hall also said the Legislature could return with a statewide proposal following the last session’s failed attempt to raise the wage to $12.
Council members pointed to an array of unanswered questions, such as how a higher wage would affect small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Hall said small businesses rule Olympia’s economy, and he cited a need to establish a “safe place” for these stakeholders to share perspectives about a politically sensitive subject.
“Our economy is fragile,” Hall said Tuesday. “It is very volatile in terms of our revenues, and the most volatile share of our budget is sales taxes.”
Some supporters of a higher minimum wage were optimistic about the council’s discussion Tuesday, including Liz Atkins-Pattenson, who believes Olympia could set the tone for the rest of Thurston County.
“I’m excited this conversation is happening, but it’s important that we keep up the pressure,” said Atkins-Pattenson, who recently left a job as a server at Olive Garden. “Once Olympia makes that step, others will follow.”
Atkins-Pattenson has attended multiple City Council meetings to advocate for raising the minimum wage. She is often joined by people who talk during the council’s public comment period about living hand to mouth on meager wages.
“We’re not going to stop until we win,” she said.
The minimum wage also has been a central issue for a local political platform called Olympia For All, which includes mayoral candidate Marco Rossi and former City Council candidates Ray Guerra and Rafael Ruiz.
After Tuesday’s session, Guerra said he was excited about the conversation, but noted that the topic is divisive even among low-wage workers. He expected the council to show a better understanding of the challenges surrounding minimum wage, especially in light of recent developments in other cities such as Seattle.
“They’ve been hearing about this for quite a while now,” he said.
Earlier this year, a poll showed that 69 percent of Olympia voters support the establishment of a $15 minimum wage. Washington state’s minimum wage is currently $9.47 per hour.