D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and opponents of his proposal to require a higher minimum wage at some large stores sparred Wednesday at a hearing that drew an overflow crowd and unleashed highly charged emotions.
“Just when the District is truly gaining traction to attract a new major retail outlets for redevelopment, the council is holding a hearing on legislation that would provide further proof to business that the District is not interested in changing its unfriendly business ways,” said Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Lang said that if the minimum wage for select retailers rises to $11.75 an hour, large retailers would be discouraged from bringing stores and jobs into the District. But Mendelson (D) and others countered that offering employees a “living wage” is a more important consideration.
Employers in the city are required to pay workers at least $1 more an hour than the federal minimum wage, now $7.25.
“It is time that we as a community break this downward spiral towards poverty wages and declare our commitment to a different model of economic development,” said Kesh Ladduwahetty of the Fair Budget Coalition. “These businesses enjoy the substantial profits and market dominance that allows them the flexibility to pay their workers $11.75.”
The bill’s reach would be limited to retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Home Depot — businesses that operate in indoor spaces of more than 75,000 square feet and have corporate parents with annual sales of at least $1 billion. Businesses whose workers have collective bargaining agreements would not have to pay the “living wage.”
The hearing room was packed with people wearing T-shirts or stickers in support of or opposition to the Large Retailer Accountability Act, and the crowd spilled into the hallway outside. More than 30 people testified, and there were several outbursts from observers. Two people were escorted out by security after interrupting the proceedings.
The tensions underscored the high stakes of the bill: the city’s effort to keep the economy humming; low-wage workers’ struggle to get by in a wealthy, gentrifying region; and the fragility of both endeavors.
Supporters of the bill said it is difficult to live in the District while earning $8.25 an hour. Several supported across-the-board wage increases, but they said that starting with large retailers whose sales top $1 billion would be an important step in the right direction.
Several opponents said the definition of large retailers is arbitrary and discriminatory. It “identifies a select group of workers and gives them preferential treatment over other workers,” said John Ray, a lawyer and former D.C. Council member.
Lang agreed, and she said smaller stores would suffer because employees would leave them to seek higher pay.
Although the bill would deal with several retailers, much of the discussion focused on Wal-Mart. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), chairman of the Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, expressed disappointment that Wal-Mart did not send a representative to testify, although the retailer provided written testimony.
“My discussion is taking place right now before the people,” Orange said. “It’s to Wal-Mart’s detriment for them not to be here to put on the record themselves and make their case.”
Steven Restivo, senior director of communications for Wal-Mart, said in a telephone interview that the retailer did not want to be the focus of the hearing. “The broader point was . . . keeping the roundtable discussion on how bad the bill is for future growth and not focused on one particular employer,” Restivo said.
Wal-Mart plans to open six stores in the city, and Restivo said the first two are set to open this year. The size of the stores would range from 80,000 to 120,00 square feet.
Orange acknowledged that the committee has work to do on the bill, including deciding “whether or not it’s arbitrary or capricious” to apply the wage provision only to retailers of a certain physical and financial size.