King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay introduced a new ordinance that would raise the minimum wage to $18.99 an hour for unincorporated King County, which encompasses White Center, Skyway and Vashon Island.
On the morning of Sept. 8, Zahilay held a press conference in Skyway announcing the new proposal. He was flanked by his fellow Democratic Councilmembers Rod Dembowski, Joe McDermott and Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who also expressed support for the bill.
Starting Jan. 1, 2024, the legislation would require large companies in unincorporated King County with more than 500 employees to pay the higher hourly rate. Medium-sized enterprises (with 16 to 499 employees) would have a four-year transition period, during which they would be allowed to pay workers a lower wage, while firms with 15 or less employees would be granted a six-year transition period. During this time, employers would be allowed to compensate their workers $2 and $3 dollars an hour less than the top rate, respectively. These reductions would then subsequently decrease by 50 cents per hour every year.
The new minimum wage would also be adjusted with inflation annually, starting on Jan. 1, 2024.
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 per 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 minimum 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 that one of the main concerns he’s heard from them about the bill is that King County doesn’t have the necessary bureaucracy to regulate the private sector in the same way other municipalities do, like Seattle with its Office of Labor Standards. This means that the bulk of enforcement for the minimum wage ordinance will fall onto workers themselves and pro bono lawyers who are willing to take employers to court over alleged violations.
Zahilay said that with a looming $100 million budget deficit in 2025 — caused mainly by the state Legislature’s refusal to approve increased property taxes — creating a countywide labor office similar to Seattle’s is not in the cards at the moment. He also said that he plans to talk with officials at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office about the possibility of that office playing a role in enforcing the ordinance if it passes.
At this time, the council has not released a timeline of when it will vote on the minimum wage legislation, though Zahilay indicated that he hoped to pass the bill this fall. He said that 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.”
Read more of the Sept. 13-19, 2023 issue.