As D.C. prepares to enact an $11.50-per-hour minimum wage this summer, advocates are pushing for a new standard that would be more than double the federal minimum.
In 2013, the D.C. Council voted to raise the minimum wage from $8.50 an hour to $11.50 by July 2016, with incremental increases each year after that to reflect inflation. Now a coalition of advocacy groups is working to get an initiative on the November ballot that proposes to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.
Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle are the only other cities in the U.S. that have approved plans to increase their minimum wage to $15 per hour. D.C.’s journey toward that wage has been stickier than in those cities, where Democratic mayors have come out in full support, and D.C.’s initiative has become tangled in some legal backlash.
Unlike her Democratic peers, Mayor Muriel Bowser has been vague about her stance on the $15 minimum wage initiative. Although she supported the $11.50 standard, Bowser told DCist in December that she didn’t like that D.C. government employees and federal workers would be left out of the new increase under the initiative.
A vast majority of D.C. voters support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In a new D.C. Vote–Washington City Paper poll, 70 percent say they would definitely support raising the minimum wage to that level by 2020, while 17 percent say they would “probably” support it.
The fight for a $15 minimum wage could see some progress soon if it passes one of its final legal hurdles. A D.C. Superior Court judge is expected to make a decision this week regarding a civil lawsuit brought by former D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Harry Wingo against the D.C. Board of Elections, which approved the initiative language in July 2015. The suit alleges that the initiative language is misleading and “arbitrary,” since not all government contract workers would be included.
If the court rules against Wingo’s suit, the initiative’s supporters will be able to move forward and begin the process of collecting the roughly 24,000 signatures they need to get the measure on the ballot.
Delvone Michael, director of D.C.’s Working Families Party chapter, said he is confident that the court will rule in the favor of the initiative, since it had already been cleared more than once by BOE. Michael said the lawsuit showed the Chamber is “not used to people standing up for themselves.”
“This is out of their purview, and they don’t like it,” Michael said.
The D.C. Chamber of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment.
This much pushback from city officials is an anomaly so far in the national fight for a $15 minimum wage, said Laura Huizar, a staff attorney for the Raise the Minimum Wage project. She said in most cities, the majority of the dissent comes from business owners who fear it will affect their ability to hire and maintain a robust staff.
So far, Walmart has been the most notable business to speak about the potential harm of an increased minimum wage, after it recently cancelled plans for two new store openings in the District. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans told the Washington Post that in a private meeting, Walmart executives cited concerns about the rising minimum wage as part of the reason they pulled out of the plans for the last two locations.
Huizer doesn’t buy this argument, since Walmart has publicly announced scaling back their storefronts as part of a much bigger transition in the company.
“Walmart has already acknowledged the closures are not result of wages and part of bigger plan to increase sales and customer services,” she said.
Michael sees the Walmart pullout as another example of elected officials prioritizing business deals over community needs, since the two stores would have been erected in one of D.C.’s poorest wards.
“I think when you make a deal with the devil you should not be surprised the devil lied to you,” Michael said.
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan. Graphic by Zach Rausnitz.