‘Large retailer’ living-wage bill is moving forward

March 13, 2013
“Big box” stores like a Lowe’s planned for Northeast are targeted by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s bill (Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg)

A D.C. Council bill that would require the city’s largest retailers — including Wal-Mart, Costco, Home Depot and others — to pay higher wages is showing signs of life.

The “Large Retailer Accountability Act,” introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in January, will get a hearing next Wednesday before the council’s Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs committee.

The bill would require “large retailers” — defined as businesses operating an indoor store of at least 75,000 square feet and whose corporate parent has sales of at least $1 billion — to pay wages no lower than $11.75 per hour plus, benefits. That “living wage” would be indexed to the local consumer price index every year.

Mendelson, as an at-large member, introduced similar bills in three previous council sessions. But those bills have never emerged from committee, and only once, in 2006, has a hearing been held.

This time, things are different. For one, Mendelson is now council chairman and when he introduced the bill in January, it was co-sponsored by a majority of his colleagues — Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Vincent Orange (D-At Large), David A. Catania (I-At Large), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and David Grosso (I-At Large).

But the bill’s progress is not guaranteed. Unions and progressive activists have pushed hard on Orange, the committee chair, to get the bill moving, but business interests have been just as active in opposing it. And there is a sense that the bill’s co-sponsors are not all necessarily committed to supporting the legislation as it is currently written.

That includes Orange, who said he is keeping an open mind on the bill despite his co-sponsorship. He said he has been visited on the matter by both Wal-Mart lobbyists who, as you might expect, oppose the bill and by labor activists who want Orange to move the bill along quickly.

Orange said his hope for the hearing is have a “fair process” and find some kind mutually agreeable solution. “When you’re dealing with opposing sides, you want to get them to come together,” he said.

That might be difficult considering the positions of the opposing sides here. But Orange said he’s optimistic, and he noted his role in pushing a bill guaranteeing a living wage for workers on government-funded projects through the council in 2005 with both business and labor support.

He pledged to have his committee take up the bill, which would be a first for the various iterations of the proposal, but he did not say Tuesday how fast it might move. “I’m going to have the hearing, and eventually I’ll get it before the entire council for a vote,” he said. “I don’t plan to sit on the bill.”

Meanwhile, a group called Don’t Block D.C. Progress has started organizing in opposition. Its Web site claims the bill would “prevent retailers like Macy’s, Home Depot, Walmart, Lowe’s and Target from bringing thousands of jobs and access to retail to our city.” The group’s origins and backing are thus far fuzzy. The Web domain was registered anonymously, and no group named “Don’t Block D.C. Progress” appears to have registered with the city.

A pair of calls to the number listed on the Web site have not turned up much. A woman who answered the phone Tuesday said someone would call back with more information about the group. A followup call to the number today again resulted in the promise of a callback. The gentleman who answered the phone declined to identify himself or the person I might expect to hear from.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
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