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Seattle to enact $15 minimum wage

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray will sign the wage hike. (David Ryder/Reuters)
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The Seattle City Council voted unanimously Monday to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, equaling the highest minimum wage in the nation.

The law will phase in the higher wages over a three- to seven-year window, depending on the size of a company. Corporations that employ more than 500 workers will have to pay $15 an hour by 2017  if their employees don’t receive company-paid health care. Smaller businesses can wait until 2019 to reach the higher rate. All workers will receive the highest wage by 2021.

“The people who work for a living have basically seen no increase in their incomes since the 1970s,” Mayor Ed Murray said in an interview. “With the federal government fairly stuck, and as we see states more and more adopting that same dysfunction, cities are the place to lead right now.”

Murray spent his first four months in office hammering out an agreement to raise the wage through a task force that included labor, business and nonprofit representatives. Labor groups had threatened to put a wage hike on the ballot this year if the city didn’t increase the wage on its own.

In the end, 21 of the 24 members of the task force agreed on the outlines of the bill. Some representatives of the business community said they backed the agreement because the bill gives credit to companies that provide generous benefit packages.

But the measure isn’t in the clear yet. The International Franchise Association will file a lawsuit seeking to overturn what it called the “unfair and discriminatory minimum wage plan” adopted by the council,  IAF President Steve Caldeira said.

The bill counts franchises as large corporations, so the owner of a single restaurant franchise would be treated as if he or she employed more than 500 people.

“These hundreds of franchise small-business owners are being punished simply because they chose to operate as franchisees. Decades of legal precedent have held that franchise businesses are independently owned businesses and are not operated by the brand’s corporate headquarters,” Caldeira said.

Murray said the negotiations were difficult  but worth the effort.

“I realize for business, it seems too radical, and I realize for some it seems not radical enough,” Murray said.

“I think it’s an answer to the radical experiment that’s been going on in this country since the 1980s,” he went on. “It’s destroyed the middle class, and it almost destroyed the economy. … It’s time to take the risk.”

Washington already has the highest minimum wage in the nation, at $9.32 an hour. In November, voters in Seatac, a small suburb that’s home to the region’s international airport, voted to impose a $15 minimum wage for airport workers. That measure, too, is being challenged in courts.