Vote on living wage bill delayed a week


Plans for new Wal-Marts in the city prompted the Large Retailer Accountability Act, which has since been greatly expanded. (D.C. Housing Authority)

The highly pitched debate over whether the city’s largest retailers should be required to pay their employees more will continue at least one more week.

Supporters had hoped to have the D.C. Council take the first of two votes Tuesday on the Large Retailer Accountability Act, a bill that would mandate that all retailers whose parent companies do $1 billion or more in annual sales pay their D.C. employees at least $12.50 an hour — well above the District’s $8.25 minimum wage.

But Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Monday that the first vote won’t come until next week. “I think there’s some feeling we should follow the normal legislative process,” he said.

The move gives business leaders who oppose the bill extra time to water it down or kill it entirely.

The stakes were raised considerably last month, when a council committee amended the bill to greatly expand its potential impact. The original draft of the bill limited its impact not only to billion-dollar retailers, but to those who operate locations of 75,000 square feet or more — language calibrated to affect “big box” retailers like Wal-Mart, which is planning to open six stores in the city in the coming months.

The amended bill stands to affect big companies with small retailer footprints; Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), who added the amendment, specifically named Apple and Nike as potential targets. The change has mobilized a business community that already opposed the bill but is now waging a fierce lobbying and public relations campaign to kill it. James C. Dinegar, chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said in a Washington Post op-ed today that the measure is “anti-competitive, counterproductive, arbitrary and just plain bad policy.”

The D.C. Chamber of Commerce, among others, have pushed for an additional hearing to explore the expanded bill’s impacts, but it is not clear whether that will happen before the meeting next Tuesday Wednesday. Mendelson said the decision to hold an additional hearing is Orange’s, and James Brown, Orange’s chief of staff, declined to comment on whether that is a possibility.

Supporters of the bill, which include organized labor and advocates for low-income residents, argue that retail wages are so low that workers remain mired in poverty and reliant on government programs. Billion-dollar corporations are able to pay their workers better wages, they say, often pointing to Costco as an example of a megaretailer whose starting wage is in excess of $11 an hour.

Living wage supporters have been actively lobbying as well; on Friday, a group of more than a dozen backers visited council offices in the John A. Wilson Building.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | June 17, 2013