Seattle’s city council voted unanimously Monday to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, becoming the nation’s first major city to raise the base wage to that level.

“Seattle is setting the stage for future movements,” said Seattle council member Kshama Sawant, a proponent in the minimum wage efforts in the city of about 650,000 residents, during Monday’s debate on the issue. Sawant estimated the legislation would raise the wages of 100,000 workers in Seattle, and added that, “$15 in Seattle is just a beginning.”

Seattle’s council members voted 9-0 to put workers on a path to reach $15 an hour over the next seven years, requiring businesses with 500 or more employees to phase in a $15 hourly minimum by 2017, with an additional year to reach that if they provide health care.

Smaller businesses will have to pay $15 an hour within seven years, and they can count some tips and health care benefits for as many as 11 years.

During Seattle’s transition to the $15 an hour minimum, some businesses will be allowed to credit tips and health care as part of the higher wage. Businesses will be allowed to provide a lower minimum wage for minors and for apprentice and training programs.

“I believe it’s a victory that will be heard around the nation,” said council member Nick Licata, during meeting remarks.

The new rules allow workers to file wage complaints within three years. Additionally, they set a penalty for businesses that violate the new law of up to $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second and $20,000 for subsequent violations.

The Washington, D.C.-based International Franchise Association said it would challenge the Seattle wage in court. Steve Caldeira, IFA president and chief executive, said in a statement that the plan was “unfair, discriminatory and a deliberate attempt to achieve a political agenda at the expense of small franchise business owners.”

Caldeira said Seattle’s plan would force the 600 franchisees in the city, which own 1,700 franchise locations and employ 19,000 workers, to adopt the full $15 minimum wage in three years, while most other small business owners would have seven years to adopt the $15 wage.

Caldeira added, “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.”

The Seattle activist group 15Now is gathering signatures for a charter amendment vote to bring in a straight $15 an hour minimum wage for businesses of 250 employees or more and a three-year phase-in period for smaller businesses.

Seattle’s council also approved a resolution that called for an audit of the new minimum wage proposals after two and four years to determine the impacts on business, employment and compliance.

Council members also passed a resolution that recommends Minimum Wage Commission be created to oversee the implementation of the new law. The council also asked that the city develop a multi-lingual application and website for workers to get information on the new wage legislation and file complaints.

Seattle is not the first Washington municipality to approve a $15 minimum wage. A proposition passed in November by SeaTac, a 27,000-resident suburb of Seattle, took effect Jan. 1 and increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

California’s Senate recently approved a $13-an-hour minimum wage proposal indexed to inflation. Several other cities, from Chicago to Los Angeles are also considering proposals to raise the minimum wage.

Restaurant workers across the nation have been restive over minimum wages in the industry, even before the U.S. Senate voted April 30 to block a bill that set out to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. That increase was opposed by restaurant industry associations including the National Restaurant Association and National Council of Chain Restaurants.

Worker protests over minimum wages, which began more than a year ago, continued into May.

On May 15, some quick-service restaurants had to temporarily close or re-staff with managers, as workers protested in as many as 150 U.S. cities and 33 nations, calling for minimum wages of $15 hour. Some protesters seeking higher wages at fast-food brands were arrested May 21 and 22 at McDonald’s Corp.’s annual meeting at the company’s Oak Brook, Ill., campus.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
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