Who wants a pay raise?! Well, Seattle's lowest-paid workers are getting one soon, since we just passed a new minimum-wage law this week. Yay! Now, on to the next big challenge: a big ol' raise for the highest-paid city employee, the CEO of City Light. C'mon, the rent won't wait! Public-utility CEOs just cannot live on these measly $120-an-hour wages!
Oh, that's not where you were going next? Well, that's where Seattle City Council was going next. On Wednesday, Council President Tim Burgess's committee passed a measure that would raise City Light CEO Jorge Carrasco's salary from $120 an hour potentially up to $175 an hour—and to ice the cake, his raise will be retroactively effective as of January 1, 2014. So while the city's political process turned "$15 Now" into "$15 phased-in over nearly a decade," when it comes to a CEO salary the city has control over, it's not just "$175 Now." It's "$175 Yesterday."
Needless to say, Seattle's socialist city council member—and chair of the City Light committee—Kshama Sawant is not too thrilled at the prospect of the city raising a CEO's salary, especially since the city's lowest-paid employees have yet to get their mayorally promised raises to $15 an hour. (That action is still tied up in city labor negotiations, and the pay raise will likely be phased in.)
"The [pay] gap between the average worker and a CEO has been growing by leaps and bounds," Sawant said after the meeting, citing an AP study published last week that showed the median pay package for the nation's CEOs hitting $10 million last year. In the face of the recent hard fight to get Seattle's lowest-paid workers on track to start making living wages, she says it's "inappropriate" for the council to approve such a lavish pay increase for a city employee. "Where do you think the money is going to come from?" she asked rhetorically, then answered: "Your pockets." It's true: The City Light CEO's salary is paid by the city's electricity ratepayers. "Every time you're paying your electricity bill, [you] should be thinking about this," says Sawant.
But Burgess says this kind of pay discussion is just a routine part of council's work.
At the committee meeting, city staffers explained that Carrasco's pay simply hasn't kept up with the pay of other public-utility CEOs in similar positions. According to their research, the median salary for this kind of position, regionally, is around $300,000; nationally, it's around $367,000. Carrasco has, in fact, been "underpaid relative to the marketplace value" of his work, mayoral staffer Chris Gregorich told the committee. (Kinda like a lot of people.)
Burgess says the simple question is: Did the city "follow our normal process" of analyzing "comparable" salaries? And he says yes, the city did that. And, this pay raise has been on the table since last year, originally proposed by Mayor Mike McGinn and now re-proposed by Mayor Ed Murray.
Has Carrasco threatened to quit if he doesn't get his raise? Burgess says he hasn't heard that, but "I know he's applied other places. He is sought after by other cities." The high pay of this position reflects the complexity of the job and the fact that competition for good candidates is fierce, Burgess argues.
Sawant's not buying it. "We're not talking about a minimum-wage worker who needs $15 an hour," she told the committee. "We're talking about someone who's getting paid $240,000 [a year]. I think everyone would agree that's not a hardship salary."
She also points out that plenty of people do great work for much less money. For example: A City Light review panel, appointed by the city, has what she calls an "intricate understanding" of the workings of the utility, and people on the panel serve three-year terms while helping oversee the utility and design its strategic plan. The city and Carrasco, Sawant mentions, have thanked them for the quality of their work over the years. How much do they get paid? Well, nothing. They're all volunteers. Even Sawant herself, she mentioned to the committee, doesn't take her full salary, accepting only an "average worker's salary" of $40,000 and donating the rest. Is she "doing any worse than any other council member," she asked the room?
But after a short discussion, the council committee (Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Sally Clark) passed this pay raise as-is anyway. Bagshaw proposed an amendment to make it effective in July, rather than retroactive back to January, but that failed when only she and Sawant voted for it. The final version will be voted on by the full council in a week.