Renton voters to decide on city’s minimum wage increase in February

The special election will be held on Feb. 13, 2024.

Despite 104 letters and many calls for a “yes” during public comments, the Renton City Council rejected the passing of Initiative Measure 2302, which would increase the city’s minimum wage to over $19 an hour, choosing instead to have the decision go to voters in February 2024.

At the city council meeting on Dec. 4, twelve advocates and six opponents of city council passing the initiative spoke during the public comment portion of the evening.

Among those who spoke out in support of the council adopting the measure were downtown Renton business owner Tawnee Kinnebrew of Wyldwood Creative and Renton Education Association president Julianna Dauble.

Some sentiments among those in support of the council passing the measure that evening were that it would be good for workers, and that it would save thousands of dollars that would come with having the measure go to a special election ballot.

Renton Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Diane Dobson and Renton Municipal Arts Commission member Marvin Rosete were among the public commenters who urged the council to vote “no,” with some saying that the decision should be up to voters — with some business owners and advocates saying the measure would hurt businesses in Renton.

Later on in the meeting, Councilmember Carmen Rivera introduced a motion to adopt the ordinance, which was seconded by Councilmember Ruth Pérez. Rivera has been a strong supporter of the efforts of “Raise the Wage Renton” and argued that low voter turnout in the latest election would be a challenge.

“People are burnt out, the trust has been lost and we need to be able to restore that trust,” Rivera said. “I’m confident that if we do send this to a ballot, it will likely be passed. However, we were elected to do work.”

Council’s perspectives

The councilmembers discussed their views on the motion, with Pérez choosing not to speak. Councilmember James Alberson Jr. said he believes the city council voting to approve the measure would be “highly premature and incredibly irresponsible” and saying that “the minimum wage, the unskilled wage, was not originally designed to be a living wage.”

Earlier, Rivera had mentioned that there are currently around 6,000 Renton residents who work within the city, which Alberson referenced when making calculations during the meeting.

Alberson said that 33.5% of those roughly 6,000 workers make less than $19 an hour, which amounts to about 2,010 workers. He said that 34% of those Renton-based workers are under the age of 29 (about 683 workers), while 21.4% are 55 years and older (about 430 workers).

Alberson speculated that about one-quarter of those 683 workers under 29 are teenagers and that 10-15% of those 430 workers who are 55 years and older are “retirees back in the workforce looking to make ends meet, to stay busy.”

“When you look at the numbers, it’s not a stretch to think that 35 to 40 percent are not looking for a livable wage,” said Alberson, referring to hypothetical numbers extrapolated from over half of the Renton residents who also work in Renton for less than $19 an hour, which the data shows to be around 2,010 people.

Councilmember Kim-Khanh Van spoke about the wording of the initiative and named Renton businesses like Grocery Outlet and Common Ground Coffee when agreeing with Councilmember Alberson, who earlier spoke about the initiative impacting “middle businesses.”

“I have issues, as an attorney, as how it is written and so that’s why I’m at a point where I would seek to the voters for their decision, and it’s their right to do so,” said Van.

Councilmember Ryan McIrvin began his talking points with a disclaimer that his opinion might be unpopular, saying that he wants to “create a path” that would give everyone a living wage, but that he wants something that more businesses are supportive of, adding that it’s “not a bad thing” for the voters to decide.

“I said throughout my campaign for re-election [that] I think it doesn’t hurt to give people a choice,” said McIrvin. “I think, contrary to Councilmember Alberson, with all due respect, when people see the good it can cause and see the disparity, I think it will pass.”

Councilmember Ed Prince pointed out that the city council has “sent several things to the ballot” before.

“We’ve sent fireworks, we’ve sent libraries, we’ve sent annexations […] if we’re going to let certain parts of the city to a ballot and had a robust discussion about that as residents, that’s what I think needs to happen with this as well,” Prince said.

Council President Valerie O’Halloran said that she has “never been against a living wage,” but that she does not agree with what has been presented in the initiative measure.

“I have always said that if Renton were to do something like this, councilmatically, we would write a very different initiative and that the model that is being presented to us just simply doesn’t work for Renton and our businesses,” O’Halloran said, adding that she believes it should go to the voters.

After the councilmembers gave their remarks, Rivera reminded them of the personal stories of workers and, again, of her certainty that residents will vote to increase the minimum wage in the city.

“We have so many workers that would like to see an increase. I mean, I know we got a lot of emails that were just copy and paste but if you read through some of them, some of them were very unique,” Rivera said. “One from a young girl who has to commute and provide for her family, another one from a man who has to commute out of Renton to get a living wage and wondering, do these workers have the same voice and values as our business owners?”

On to the special election

After the councilmember’s discussions, the city council voted 6-1 to reject the initiative measure, with Rivera being the lone “aye” and the decision to raise Renton’s minimum wage going to the voters on the second Tuesday of February.

“Raise the Wage Renton” Chair Guillermo Zazueta said that, despite the 6-1 vote, the organization still considered it a “win-win” since they collected signatures, qualified for the ballot and have the support of local labor unions.

“Voter turnout in Renton and King County hit historically low numbers below 30% this last election, and tonight Renton City Council failed to represent the interests of working people,” said Zazueta in a statement to the Renton Reporter. “Councilmembers who purport themselves as pro-labor, seek endorsements and support from local labor unions will be remembered as having failed working people come time for re-election. That’s a promise.”

The special election will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.