by Guy Oron
(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay is set to introduce a new ordinance that would raise the minimum wage to $18.99 an hour for unincorporated King County, which encompasses areas like White Center, Skyway, and Vashon Island.
Zahilay was joined at a press conference on Thursday morning, Sept. 7, by his fellow Democratic Councilmembers Rod Dembowski, Joe McDermott, and Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who also support the bill.
Starting on Jan. 1, 2024, the legislation would require large companies with more than 500 employees to pay the higher hourly rate. Medium-sized enterprises with 16 to 499 employees would be given a four-year transition period, in which they would be allowed to pay workers a lower wage, while firms with 15 or fewer employees would be granted a six-year transition period. The reductions during this transition start at $2 and $3 dollars an hour, respectively, and decrease by 50 cents per hour every year.
The new minimum wage would also be adjusted with inflation annually, starting on the same date.
Zahilay told Real Change that the ordinance is intended to help the more than 250,000 residents of unincorporated King County better afford the region’s high cost of living. Currently, those workers make the Washington State minimum wage of $15.74 an hour. Zahilay’s office estimates that a worker would need to work 103 hours a week at that rate to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in King County.
“We don’t want people who are working full-time jobs to struggle to survive, and that’s exactly what’s happening in King County,” Zahilay said.
The ordinance will align unincorporated King County with the neighboring cities of Seattle, Tukwila, and SeaTac, all of which have minimum wages close to or above $19 an hour. It builds on a wave of momentum that came after the Transit Riders Union led a campaign last year to pass the Tukwila law, earning more than 80% of the vote. Community organizers in nearby Renton and Burien have been spearheading similar efforts to raise the wage in their cities as well.
“So many people are suffering, burdened by their rent costs, burdened by their grocery costs, unable to make basic ends meet,” Zahilay said. “And so I hope that this proposal will, at a minimum, bring our unincorporated workers to a level where they have similar protections as their neighboring cities.”
In addition to regulating employers within unincorporated King County, the legislation would also impose the same higher rate for county employees and some contractors who do business with the county.
To get a majority, Zahilay will need to get the support of at least one more of his colleagues, which will probably be one of the three other Democratic councilmembers. He says one of the main concerns he’s heard from them about the bill is that King County doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure to regulate the private sector in the same way other municipalities like Seattle are able to do with its Office of Labor Standards. This means the bulk of enforcement for the minimum wage ordinance will fall onto workers themselves and pro bono lawyers who are willing to take their employers to court over alleged violations.
Zahilay says that with a looming $100 million budget deficit in 2025 — caused mainly by the State Legislature’s refusal to greenlight increased property taxes — creating a countywide labor office similar to Seattle’s is not in the cards at the moment. He also says he plans to talk with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office about whether it could play a role in enforcing the ordinance if it passes.
At this time, the Council has not released a timeline of when the minimum wage legislation will be voted on, though Zahilay indicated that he hopes to pass the bill this fall. He says he wants it to be part of a larger push to increase wages for low-paid workers across the region.
“As a King County Councilmember, my jurisdiction to be able to actually mandate employers to pay $18.99 is limited to just unincorporated King County, but our advocacy is regional,” he said. “And so if I work together with our partners around the region and say, ‘This is what King County thinks is right,’ hopefully we can start seeing that movement across our different cities that have different jurisdictions.”
Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.
📸 Featured image courtesy Office of Councilmember Girmay Zahilay.
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