Washington State's King County Approves Living Wage Legislation

by | October 7, 2014

By Daniel Beekman

The Metropolitan King County Council approved legislation Monday requiring that a so-called living wage be paid to most county employees and to the employees of certain county contractors.

The legislation doesn't establish a new minimum-wage scale for everyone who works in King County, like Seattle's new law does for everyone who works in the city.

The county's legislation applies only to people working directly or indirectly for taxpayers, partly because the county has limited authority over how business is conducted in cities and towns within its borders. But proponents say the legislation is significant because it recognizes that many people are struggling to get by despite having a job.

The vote to enact the legislation was 5-4, with the council's five Democrats in favor and its four Republicans opposed.

"We applaud the council for taking this on. There is a lot of symbolism in the county making this statement," said Ben Henry, senior policy associate at Alliance for a Just Society, a Seattle-based advocacy organization. "This is a step toward paying people what they need to make ends meet."

Councilmember Rod Dembowski, a sponsor of the legislation, says more than 100 other jurisdictions around the country have adopted living-wage ordinances.

"It didn't seem right that we could have someone doing the county's work while being paid so little that we would be subsidizing their bus pass or providing them with rental assistance," said Dembowski, a Democrat. "My view is that if you're working full time you should be paid a living wage so we don't have to subsidize you."

Councilmembers Jane Hague and Kathy Lambert, Republicans who sit on the council's economy committee, didn't immediately return requests for comment Monday.

The legislation will apply to all county employees except short-term ones and people in work-study and training programs. It will apply to contractor employees working on service contracts of at least $100,000.

The county and contractors with at least 500 employees will be required to pay a minimum $11 an hour starting April 1, 2015; $13 in 2016; and $15 in 2017; followed by annual increases pegged to the rate of inflation. Most county employees already make at least $15 an hour.

Contractors with fewer than 500 employees will be required to pay $10.50 an hour starting in 2016, followed by annual increases to reach $17.25 in 2024.

Starting in 2025, the smaller contractors will be required to pay the same minimum wage as the county and the larger contractors. Seattle's new ordinance, approved in June, calls for all employers in the city to pay a minimum $18.13 an hour by 2025.

The state minimum wage is $9.32 an hour.

The county's living-wage legislation will apply to new contracts only. There are 4,512 existing contracts, 1,058 of which are service contracts of at least $100,000.

County officials say they don't know how many employees are working on those contracts and don't know how many workers the legislation will affect.

Dembowski says minimum-wage hikes make sense because they improve lives without the government overhead that comes with social services.

"Raising a minimum wage is probably the most efficient social program there is -- no government waste, no fraud, no abuse," he said.

"This is a fiscally responsible piece of legislation," Dembowski added, saying the state has enjoyed strong job growth after raising its minimum wage.

Last month, County Executive Dow Constantine proposed eliminating more than 500 county jobs as part of his budget plan for 2015 and 2016. The council, which is reviewing Constantine's budget, took up the living-wage legislation while considering a report published this summer by the Alliance for a Just Society.

The "Families Out of Balance" report found that a single adult in King County with no children and a full-time job needs to earn more than $17 an hour -- about $36,000 a year -- to make ends meet while saving 10 percent of his or her income.

(c)2014 The Seattle Times