Corporate interests fail to overturn voter-approved minimum wage COLA

In a challenge to Washington’s best-in-the-nation minimum wage law, a handful of corporate interests (including the Washington Farm Bureau, Washington Restaurant Association, and Washington Retail Association) recently appeared in Kittitas County court, seeking to block a 12-cent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) scheduled for 2011.

Opponents of the COLA based much of their case on an opinion issued by state Attorney General Rob McKenna — but the Washington Department of Labor and Industries had plenty of expert legal advice with which to mount a strong case in defense of the law.

L&I originally approved the COLA based on guidance from Governor Christine Gregoire (also Washington’s Attorney General from 1993-2004).  The authors of Initiative 688, which linked increases in Washington’s minimum wage to inflation, also submitted legal opinions. And Marilyn Watkins, Policy Director at the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI), submitted an “expert declaration” to the court analyzing cost of living indices and the positive impacts of minimum wage increases.

After deliberation and discussion, Judge Scott R. Sparks ruled in favor of the State, denying the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. ‘There are lots of ways to write a statute,” said Judge Sparks, “[and] it was not written in the way the plaintiffs are suggesting.”

Judge Sparks found the plain meaning of the statute, passed by voter initiative with a 2/3 majority in 1998, requires a cost-of-living adjustment whenever the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) increases over the designated 12-month reference period. The relevant statutory language:

…the department of labor and industries shall calculate an adjusted minimum wage rate to maintain employee purchasing power by increasing the current year’s minimum wage rate by the rate of inflation. The adjusted minimum wage rate shall be calculated to the nearest cent using the consumer price index for urban wage earners and clerical workers, CPI-W…

The corporate lobbies that are opposing Washington’s minimum wage should be the law’s biggest fans. The latest research by economists comparing counties that share borders across state lines has found that increasing the minimum wage not only increases the incomes of low wage workers, it does so without decreasing the number of jobs. And it benefits employers by decreasing costly turnover.

This may not be the last time the issue comes up for debate. Opponents of the minimum wage law could introduce legislation in Olympia to gut some or all of the law, and proponents may introduce their own bill(s) to further clarify and codify the legal intent of the law.

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