‘Living wage’ bill is sent to D.C. mayor, setting up veto decision

August 30, 2013

A bill that would require the District’s largest retailers to pay their employees a super-minimum wage was sent to Mayor Vincent C. Gray Friday for his signature or veto, more than seven weeks after the D.C. Council gave it final approval.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) transmitted the bill shortly after 3 p.m., accompanied by a letter urging Gray to sign the bill.

“Good wages are about respect,” Mendelson wrote. “. . . The District needs jobs, but they should be decent jobs with decent wages.”

Gray now has 10 business days to sign or veto the bill, which has become part of a national debate over low-wage jobs and Wal-Mart, the mega-retailer that is seeking to open stores in the city and has strenuously opposed the bill. Advocates on both sides of the debate have been active in recent weeks, seeking to influence the mayor’s decision.

Spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said Friday it would be “several days” before Gray announces his decision. Given the council’s long delay in sending the bill, he said, “I think folks can hold on for a few days.”

 

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In the weeks after the July 10 council vote, Mendelson resisted the implication that he was purposely keeping the bill from the mayor’s desk for political reasons. But in an interview this week, Mendelson said there was “strategic value” in the additional time, allowing proponents to put additional pressure on Gray to sign the measure.

Backers of the law, known as the Large Retailer Accountability Act, have engaged in door-to-door canvassing and a telephone campaign urging residents to contact the mayor’s office. About 200 rallied Tuesday night at a Southeast Washington church in support of the bill.

In both his remarks at the rally and in the letter sent to Gray on Friday, Mendelson alluded to the recent 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose demands included a higher minimum wage.

“The cry for freedom and justice recognized that economic equality is essential,” Mendelson wrote in the letter. “The demand in 1963 was for a $2 minimum wage. What is $2 in 1963 worth today? $15.27. If Dr. King thought $15.27 an hour was needed for the dream, the least we can do is $12.50.”

It is unusual for a council chairman to include such language in legislative transmittal letters, which are typically boilerplate documents.

The bill would require retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more which operate a District location of at least 75,000 square feet to pay their employees combined wages and benefits of no less than $12.50 hourly. The city’s minimum wage otherwise is $8.25.

Businesses with unionized workforces are exempt under the act, and retailers currently operating in the city would have several years to come into compliance. Those provisions, combined with the measure’s timing and public comments from its proponents, have closely linked it with Wal-Mart.

The retailer, the nation’s largest, said ahead of the final council vote last month that it would abandon plans for at least three of six planned stores in the city should the bill become law.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo criticized Mendelson on Friday for taking two months to deliver the bill to the mayor, saying his “excuses for doing so have been all over the map.”

“But one good thing about the last seven weeks has been to expose how poorly written the legislation is and to provide the time for a diverse number of folks to weigh in against the legislation,” Restivo said.

While Gray has maintained he has not made a final decision, he has supported Wal-Mart’s entry into the city and has generally been skeptical of the bill in his public comments. His top economic development aide, Deputy Mayor Victor L. Hoskins, said last month it could cripple the city’s efforts to attract retailers.

Should Gray veto the bill, the council would have 30 business days to stage an override vote, requiring the approval of nine of 13 members. The bill passed last month on an 8 to 5 vote.

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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