The broad coalition of support for Seattle's landmark $15 minimum wage bill appeared to falter a bit on May 22, as the city council began deliberations on the mayor's legislation and labor leaders worried that business lobbying was getting out of hand. One part of the debate that seems to be particularly fraying nerves: discussions about "training wages."
"I've gotta say, I'm a little disappointed in our mayor right now," David Freiboth, the executive secretary of the M.L. King County Labor Council, told labor council delegates at a May 21 meeting. He was referring to remarks Mayor Ed Murray made about training wages, and specifically to a provision Murray inserted into his bill post-negotiations (a provision the mayor told the Seattle Times he wasn't sure labor actually agreed to). Freiboth, a member of the mayor's advisory committee, told the delegate meeting: "I think we're getting played." The labor council then passed a resolution saying they'd start lobbying the city council for a better deal.
Over at the city council chambers, the concept of training wages then came up repeatedly during a May 22 hearing on the mayor's bill, confirming the concept's status as one of the most hotly contested points of debate at the moment.
So what's a training wage? Like a lot of things in the $15 minimum wage push, the answer depends on who you ask. In general, the phrase "training wage" is used to describe any kind of lower-than-minimum wage, but there's a lot more to it than just that, including:
The State Version
The mayor's minimum-wage committee has agreed in principle to follow the contours of the state's minimum-wage laws. So does the state have a training wage? Technically no, says Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) spokesman Matthew Erlich. "We don't usually use that kind of language," he says. What the state does have is a narrowly defined "subminimum wage program," in which employers can apply for and receive certificates from L&I that allow them to pay a slightly lower-than-minimum wage. They can get these certificates only for specific employees who fall into categories of "student learners," "handicapped workers," "adult learners," and "student workers." The state has issued only five certificates in the last five years—four for individual handicapped adults, and one for student workers at a boarding school.
In the mayor's bill, a program would mirror this at the city level, requiring an employer to get a letter of recommendation from L&I before a city director could then give a city-level certificate. But while the state program has been small, there's no telling how many employers would apply for certificates with Seattle's new higher wages—and how creatively they might try to interpret the existing but rarely used state codes. Opponents of training wages fear this could become a huge loophole for businesses to exploit.
The state also allows a lower minimum wage for 14- and 15-year-olds; all employees 16 and older must make the state minimum. The city council is considering an amendment to the legislation, proposed by the mayor, that would allow a city director to make city rules around youth wages. But the process by which a city director would do this remains to be determined.
Short-Term Training Period Wages
While the two previous categories use state law as a guide, the city council has left open the option of adding a whole new kind of training wage, one the state does not have: a short-term subminimum wage for a training period at the beginning of employment. However, a change that big could really strain the coalition that has so far agreed to support the mayor's bill.
How will this all get resolved? We'll see, but however it goes, it may go quickly. The council could take a first vote on the bill as early as May 27.