‘Living Wage’ Debate Moves Back to D.C. Council

Posted September 13, 2013 at 12:12pm

After Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed a bill to require higher minimum wages for many large retailers, calling it a “job-killer” and “huge blow to economic development,” the focus shifts back to the D.C. Council, which will vote Sept. 17 on a possible override of the mayor’s decision.

Eight council members voted to approve the bill on July 10; nine would be needed to override Gray’s Thursday veto. In the meantime, heavy lobbying from retailers that oppose the bill — especially Wal-Mart — and the unions and living-wage advocates who support it, is sure to continue.

“I am incredibly upset, disappointed, and angry that Mayor Gray has decided to stand with Walmart and other large corporations instead of with the residents of this city,” said Kimberly Mitchell, a Macy’s employee and lifelong Ward 7 resident, in a statement provided by Respect DC. “We are now counting on the city council to do the right thing, stand up with D.C. residents, and override this veto.”

One of the five “no” votes came from D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who represents Capitol Hill and is running for mayor.

“I believe what we need is a living wage for everyone,” Wells told CQ Roll Call, explaining that he opposed the bill because it did not help all the city’s residents. The legislation would require retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more that operate in spaces 75,000 feet or larger and do not collectively bargain to pay their employees no less than $12.50 per hour. The city’s current minimum wage is $8.25 per hour; the federal minimum wage is $7.25.

In the veto letter hand-delivered to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Gray emphasized that he supports raising the city’s minimum wage, which amounts to about $17,000 in annual earnings, saying he wants to boost pay for all workers, not just those in the retail sector.

“People need to get down to the real issue,” Gray told Fox 5 on Friday. “One of the real issues is there’s so few people who were going to be benefiting from the bill. What we need, frankly, and this is what I’ve called for, is to look at how we increase the minimum wage in the District of Columbia that would affect all people in this city who are making low wages.”

Gray has not provided specific details on what level of increase he would support.

Wells has sponsored legislation to raise the minimum wage by a dollar a year for two years, to $10.25, then tie the minimum wage to cost-of-living increases.

“I’ve talked to the Chamber of Commerce, I’ve talked to developers and I’ve talked to others,” Wells said. “I think now is the time we raise the minimum wage. It’s an interest for the country, the president has said himself that we need to raise the minimum wage for our citizens.”

By vetoing the legislation, Gray cleared the way for Wal-Mart to move forward with plans to open six stores in the city.

“We look forward to finishing the work we started in the city almost three years ago: a plan to bring more jobs, shopping options and fresh food choices to Washington, D.C. residents,” company spokesman Steve Restivo said in an announcement praising the mayor’s veto. The retail giant had threatened to pull out of building in D.C. if the bill became law.

Wells said the District loses sales tax dollars when residents who need low-cost goods are forced to drive to a Wal-Mart outside the city. “We’ve got neighborhoods that need grocery stores, other things like that that this bill would have prevented.”

Mendelson, a chief supporter of the bill, says good wages are about respect, and the bill is about sustainable economic development. “The District needs jobs, but they should be decent jobs with decent wages.”