Renton voters face big decision on minimum wage

If approved in February special election, city would have one of the highest minimum wages in the nation.

On Feb. 13, Renton voters will decide whether to increase the minimum wage to an hourly rate that would be among the highest in the nation.

In spring 2023, the advocacy campaign organization “Raise the Wage Renton” — comprised of labor union leaders, local workers and advocates — announced a grass-roots campaign to petition enough signatures to get their minimum wage raise initiative on the ballot.

Over the course of 2023, the Raise the Wage campaigners gathered 16,786 signatures from the community and submitted their petition to the King County Elections office.

After several reviews of the signatures collected, the King County Elections office validated 9,652 of the signatures, which is over the 8,913 signatures required by law to compel the Renton City Council to either adopt the ordinance as-is or place it on the next ballot for voter approval.

During the Dec. 4, 2023, Renton City Council meeting, the council passed Resolution No. 4516, requesting King County Elections to place Initiative Measure 23-02 on the Special Election ballot for Feb. 13, 2024. The council appointed committees to prepare pro and con statements for the voters pamphlet.

During the Dec. 4 meeting, campaigners and community advocates put pressure on the city council and made testimony urging the council to pass the minimum wage raise measure as-is. Other community members and small-business advocates raised concerns about the measure’s potential impact on local businesses and costs that taxpayers would incur, as the city would have to hire employees and perhaps a new department to enforce compliance with the new policy.

The current minimum wage in Renton is $16.28 per hour as of Jan. 1, and is monitored and mandated at the state level. If passed, Initiative Measure 23-02 would compel businesses in Renton that employ at least 15 employees, or have annual gross revenue of over $2 million to pay employees a minimum of $20.29 per hour for large employers and $18.29 for smaller covered employers, according to the city.

The lower wage would be phased to equal that of large employers in two years, and the wage would be adjusted for inflation annually, according to the city’s webpage on the initiative.

If passed in February, the policy would take effect on July 1, 2024.

It is worth noting that tips and service charges paid to employees in the service industry are in addition to, and may not count toward, the employee’s hourly minimum wage.

The initiative also has provisions that create regulations about when hours must be offered to part-time employees before making new hires or subcontracting work; creates rules against retaliation; and creates requirements that the city must create and enforce rules, including a compliance certification for all businesses.

Kari Roller, the city’s finance director, presented to Renton City Council during a June 26, 2023, Committee of the Whole meeting about the potential impacts the initiative could have on the city. Roller outlined how the city could incur costs from having to fund outreach and communication efforts to notify business and community members in the city. Other costs would include training efforts, new software and the likely hiring of an estimated five full-time employees to monitor compliance and enforce the policies.

“The city does not currently have staff on-hand that specializes in the enforcement of labor laws,” Roller told the council.

She said she anticipated that legal fees and funding for litigation could be necessary.

For the estimated overhead costs of rolling out and maintaining the policies contained in the initiative, Roller estimated a cost of about $1 million to $2 million per year, which would come out of the city’s general fund. She said that revenue for the new program could be generated from a new property tax, B&O tax, or could be freed up from cutting an existing program.

As far as the economic impacts and drawbacks to businesses that could be seen as a result of the initiative, Roller said it is “hard to say,” with debates for the pro and cons on both sides of the issue.

“Many debate and say that, you know, higher salaries … it gives people more disposable income to be able to spend within the city, which would increase sales to our businesses,” Roller said during her presentation. “Others can say higher salaries would indicate businesses need to increase their prices. This could impact those businesses that have a really small profit margin where they really cannot absorb an increase in wages.”

On Dec. 11, 2023, a Political Action Committee (PAC) called “No on 23-02” officially registered with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. As of Jan. 15, the committee has raised $96,250 in opposition to the minimum wage initiative in Renton. Of the $96,250 raised against the initiative, $93,500 was donated from businesses and business associations including the Washington Hospitality Association, the Washington Food Industry Association, and an organization called Seattle Hospitality for Progress.

The Washington Hospitality Association is a hospitality trade group that represents in fast food and hospitality businesses, including companies like McDonald’s.

In an article on their website, the Washington Retail Association wrote that the organization plans to join others “to actively participate in the ‘No’ campaign” against the initiative this year. That same article mentions that Diane Dobson, CEO of the Renton Chamber of Commerce, has expressed concern about the wage proposal because it does not consider tips and benefits in the wage calculation. Dobson told the Renton Reporter that the Chamber opposes the initiative.

Members on the Washington Retail Association’s board include representatives from Walmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Macy’s and CVS Health.