Sawant fires first volley in Seattle minimum wage debate

SEATTLE -- She's yet to take office as Seattle's first socialist City Councilmember, but Kshama Sawant is already rattling the ranks with a new minimum wage mandate.

Sawant says she isn't ready to offer many details, but her bold plan has plenty of small businesses worried.

Bill Sheehan, who owns Seattle Flowers on 2nd Avenue, says he is able to pay his workers well above the state's minimum wage of $9.19 an hour. However, Sheenan thinks it could backfire to mandate all Seattle businesses to pay at least $15 an hour.

"I think it could take a significant toll on a lot of, not only small businesses, but also businesses that hire at minimum wage," Sheehan said.

Sawant won a city council seat on a promise to boost pay to $15 an hour throughout Seattle. The outspoken socialist is wasting no time getting started.

"This cannot happen over a decade or so," Sawant said. "This has to happen as soon as possible."

Sawant and her supporters point to a wage boost for airport workers that passed in Seatac as motivation for Seattle to do the same.

"People say that low wage workers, fast food workers here in Seattle, can't earn a living wage of $15 an hour, but they are wrong because momentum is on our side," said Sterling Harders, a member of SEIU Local 775.

Many local business owners worry a $15 mandate could push employers to trim staff or pass costs on to customers.

"I think some jobs will be lost in the process," Sheehan, the florist, said. "I think the other part of it is prices will climb a little bit to compensate for that."

Then there's the question of restaurant employees who earn tips, and companies that hire seasonal or temporary workers. At this point, Sawant won't commit to any exceptions. She also says if fellow council members don't offer their support, she'll invoke other measures.

"Then we have to be willing to take it to the people through a referendum," Sawant said.

The city council earmarked $100,000 to study the overall impacts of boosting the minimum wage. Mayor-elect Ed Murray is working on his own plans to address what he terms "wage inequities."