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A controversial bill to require large retailers in the District to pay a “living wage” sailed through a key D.C. Council committee vote this morning, setting up a vote in the full Council.
The Large Retailer Accountability Act was introduced in January by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and received a contentious hearing in March, with members of the business community alleging that its requirements were unfair and that it would drive business out of the city. Vincent Orange, who chairs the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, amended the legislation to address some of those concerns, removing the provision that only stores in excess of 75,000 square feet would be subject to the wage requirements, so that any retailer whose parent company grosses at least $1 billion per year is required to pay $12.50 an hour, minus prorated benefits.
At the bill’s committee markup this morning, the five councilmembers present were largely supportive of the measure. Orange and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham noted that with D.C.’s economy booming, the city was no longer desperate to attract retailers and could afford to take measures to improve wages. Mendelson took care to emphasize that the bill is not so radical, given that a full-time employee making $12.50 an hour earns only about $26,000 per year, minus benefits—-“I don’t think in today’s world that $26,000 is a great job,” he said—-and that many large retailers are already paying a living wage.
Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who said she was “leaning toward supporting this,” abstained after expressing concerns that Walmart and other retailers might cut employee hours as a result of the bill and that the bill didn’t cover enough retailers. The measure gives existing D.C. stores a four-year grace period to implement the living wage and doesn’t apply to franchises or businesses with collective bargaining agreements.
Orange said the bill serves “three legitimate interests”: It saves the District money on social services for low-wage workers, it boosts D.C.’s economy—-“when a living wage is paid,” Orange said, “the employees that receive the living wage tend to spend those dollars right away”—-and it helps retail employees “afford to live here in the nation’s capital.”
The bill has been commonly referred to as the “Walmart bill,” since it’ll affect the six Walmarts that are expected to open in the District in the coming years. But Orange insisted that with his changes, it’s now much broader and will cover “the Nikes, the Apples, the Gaps.”
“This is not a Walmart bill,” Orange said. “If it were a Walmart bill, we’d be talking about square-foot requirements.”
Every councilmember but Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie initially co-sponsored the legislation, implying that its prospects for passage by the full Council are good, although Alexander’s abstention and earlier comments by councilmembers—-Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser said at the March hearing, “I lent my support early on just so we could be here in this meeting”—-indicate that there could still be a fight ahead.