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Seattle minimum wage plan echoes SD debate

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray unveiled a plan to raise his city's minimum wage to $15 on Thursday — by far the highest municipal minimum wage in the country — after hammering out a compromise over several issues that have been stumbling blocks in San Diego's push for a wage hike.

Under the Seattle plan, the wage would be phased in from 2017 to 2021, with the length of the phase-in depending on the size of the business and whether it pays health care benefits or its workers receive tips.

“This has been a long process of give-and-take leading to an agreement that will help to narrow the income gap facing our middle class….,” said Howard Wright, CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, who co-chaired the task force that devised the plan.

"While I know not everyone in the employer community will be satisfied, I believe it is the best outcome, given the political environment.”

The plan was released just a day after the economic development committee of the San Diego City Council voted to move forward on a proposal to raise the city's minimum wage to $13.09 per hour by July 1, 2017.

The proposal drew large support from some businesses, which said it would help create a more reliable workforce and more stable group of consumers, as well as 200 or so low-wage workers who attended.

But it drew fire from many other businesses and labor groups, who asked for a longer phase-in for small businesses and who complained that workers who earn tips — such as waiters and bartenders — should not have the same base wage as those who don't.

The Seattle plan — hashed out over five months by a 24-member task force of politicians, business leaders, labor organizers and nonprofit executives — has four schedules for implementation:

• Large businesses — meaning companies with more than 500 employees, whether in Seattle or the rest of the nation — will have to pay a minimum of $15 an hour by 2017, after two years of phase-in, unless they also provide health care benefits for their employees.

• Large businesses that do provide health care benefits will have until 2018 to phase in the $15 payment.

• Workers who receive tips will not qualify for the full $15 wage until 2019.

• Small businesses will have until 2019 to pay their workers $15, including base pay of at least $12 per hour, combined with health care benefits and tips. By 2021, the base pay will rise to $15 per hour.

The Seattle plan still must clear the City Council before being added to the city ballot, but Murray said he is confident the measure will pass, especially because much of the business community has lined up behind it.

Of the 24 members of the committee, only one business executive voted against the plan, although the head of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce abstained.

"I don't expect I've ever seen a situation where everyone's happy," Murray said, when discussing the dissent. "I'm a politician, not a saint." But he added that he thought the members of the task force had made enough compromises to get businesses on board.

In San Diego, City Council President Todd Gloria and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith are working on a detailed version of the proposal to be presented June 11 to the economic development committee before going to the whole City Council.

Gloria's spokeswoman, Katie Keach, said some of the measures in the Seattle plan wouldn't work in San Diego because of differences in California and Washington state law.

California, for instance, has restrictions against using tips to calculate total compensation — one of the thorniest sticking points among the critics who attended Wednesday's hearing.

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