The soon-to-open Walmart at 1st and H streets NW.
The soon-to-open Walmart at 1st and H streets NW.

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The D.C. Council passed the hotly debated bill this afternoon to require large retailers to pay their employees a living wage of $12.50 an hour. The 8-5 vote on the Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013 came after nearly an hour of contentious debate.

“The District government has an obligation not just to encourage the development and growth of jobs, but to encourage the development and growth of quality jobs,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson, who introduced the bill, before casting his “yes” vote. Councilmembers Vincent Orange, Marion Barry, Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, Jim Graham, David Grosso, and Kenyan McDuffie joined him in voting for the bill.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh praised the bill’s intentions but voted against it for fear of unintended consequences. “The stated purpose of this bill is that large retailers pay a living wage, and that’s certainly an objective we should pursue,” she said. “But this legislation isn’t sufficiently tailored to achieve those goals and is likely to be counterproductive.” Cheh said the bill was both too broad (it also pays the living wage to Maryland and Virginia residents working in the District) and too narrow (it only applies to large retailers).

The vote came after the bill was narrowed by an amendment from Mendelson, Evans, and Orange that restored an earlier provision, which limits the effects of the bill to retailers with more than 75,000 square feet of store space. Throughout the process, the legislation has only applied to retailers whose parent company grosses at least $1 billion per year.

Orange, who chairs the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, amended the bill in May to include all retailers grossing at least $1 billion per year, regardless of physical size. At the time, he said the bill could no longer be called the “Walmart bill,” as it’s popularly known. But with the square footage restriction reinserted, it’s once again largely a shot at Walmart, which is planning six stores in the District. Only a handful of existing D.C. retailers will be affected.

“If this is about sticking it to Walmart, we should be honest and say so,” said Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser during today’s debate, before voting against the bill.

Last night, D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang held a call with reporters in which she criticized the bill for discouraging retailers from opening stores in D.C. “This is great economic development for Maryland and Virginia,” she said. Lang said the Chamber does not yet have any plans to try to prevent implementation of the bill.

After a second Council vote on July 10, the bill will go to Mayor Vince Gray, who has been critical of it, for a signature or a veto. Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update 5:25 p.m.: In a letter to Mendelson earlier today, Gray urged caution on the bill but did not take a firm stance. “I urge the Council to take additional time to continue its work through this significantly important bill to ensure an appropriate balance is achieved between improving the lives of our workforce, and encouraging business attraction and retention.” Meanwhile, Walmart sends out a statement blasting legislation it says “will ultimately lead to higher prices, less jobs and fewer stores from some of the country’s largest retailers.”

And Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who voted against the bill, says in a statement, “The Large Retailer Act has negative impacts and direct consequences for some of the poorest areas of our city. The act creates a barrier to getting large grocery stores, other retailers and job creators to locate east of the river, in the communities of our city with the greatest need. D.C. has one of the highest costs of living the nation, and this act perpetuates those impossibly high costs in our most depressed communities. The act also hurts those in need of jobs, especially youth seeking after school jobs.”

Photo by Aaron Wiener