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National Restaurant Association - Major city at center of $15 wage fight

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Major city at center of $15 wage fight

Activists pushing for a $15 minimum wage are now focusing their efforts on Seattle, and may use their tactics there to drive similar pushes in other cities around the United States.

The group at the center of the Seattle efforts, 15 Now, was a prime organizing force behind a ballot measure last November that forced starting wages for a small subset of transportation and hospitality workers in nearby SeaTac, Wash., to $15 beginning in January.

Although 15 Now has helped organize recent wage demonstrations in other cities, the group has identified Seattle as among its “best immediate prospects” to use local legislation or ballot measures to force a $15 starting wage for a broader group of employees.

Seattle’s restaurant operators oppose a $15 wage mandate, and the Seattle Restaurant Alliance and Washington Restaurant Association are waging an aggressive effort to let the city’s lawmakers know that an immediate increase to $15 would force operators to make some very difficult decisions to keep their doors open and could even put many restaurants out of business, said Josh McDonald, local government affairs manager for the WRA and Seattle alliance.

“For the majority of Seattle’s restaurants, if this doesn’t take them out of business, it will completely change how they operate and how they hire,” McDonald said. In addition to limiting hiring, restaurant owners may be forced to reduce or eliminate employee benefits if they were forced to pay a $15-per-hour minimum wage. “If you suddenly have $250,000 more in labor costs, you have to find a way to get there if you want to stay open. Removing other benefits you don’t have to provide by law would need to be considered. That goes in the opposite direction of what we want to see happen in our Seattle community.”

While no one’s yet made a formal proposal to increase Seattle’s $9.32 minimum wage, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (D), who has said he supports a $15 minimum wage, has formed a committee to make recommendations on the city’s minimum wage policy. Several restaurants are represented on the committee, as well as hotels and labor unions. One committee co-chair is from the hotel industry, while the other is the head of the local Service Employees International Union chapter. The committee is expected to wrap up work within the next few weeks.

A $15 minimum wage is also being pushed by one member of the city council, who made it a centerpiece of her campaign for office. That councilor, Kshama Sawant, is aligned with 15 Now and says she’ll organize a drive to put a $15-per-hour wage on the November ballot if the council doesn’t pass the increase. 

The debate over Seattle’s minimum wage has been widely covered by the media, who have taken a particular interest in its impact on restaurants, McDonald said. Employees interviewed by the media generally have said the extra money would be nice, but that they are concerned about potential job losses and other costs to their employers, he said.

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