Minimum wage could make a dent in mayoral election

By Monica Charles and Sydney Mineer

With the cost of living in the District of Columbia now surpassing that of New York City, the minimum wage issue is rising with it. 

A new study released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that at an average of $28,416 per year, the cost of living in the district is the highest in the country. The study finds that the majority of Washingtonians’ expenses are related to housing and food.

For students and blue-collar workers, jobs in the service industry are enough for them to get by on, but most of the available positions pay the minimum wage, which is not enough to live off comfortably in the city for many.

In 2013, the District Council voted to incrementally increase minimum wage to $11.50 an hour by 2016. The first phase of the wage increase began in July, raising minimum wage from $8.25 per hour to $9.50.

Though many see the wage increase as a positive, some district residents do not think it’s enough. Stan LaSota has been a resident of the district for 15 years. LaSota is an employee at Ace Hardware in Tenleytown and a small business owner. Without his business, LaSota would not be able to afford to live in the city. To counteract the rising cost of living in the district, LaSota suggested the city adopt a living wage, akin to Seattle’s plan of raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

“Seattle now says this is a living wage, not a minimum wage. In other words, someone can live off of $15 an hour. Easily,” LaSota said. “What people do not realize is that when you raise the minimum wage, people then will not rely on government subsidies. Our taxes and everything are going into those subsidies. When the subsidies disappear because people now can buy things, then our taxes will go lower.”

LaSota noted that though a lot of money is spent in the city, the people that are doing the spending are either lawyers and people associated with the government or tourists. If DC were to adopt a living wage policy, people in the service and retail industries would be able to spend money too, LaSota said.

“If it becomes a living wage then I think DC would probably boom, because right now DC relies on transient people who come in for a certain amount of time and then they leave,” LaSota said. “But the ones, like myself, who have moved here and have tried to make it a home, it’s us – we’re the ones they should be thinking about because we’re the ones who will be staying. And if we’re the ones staying then concentrate on us. Don’t worry about the flow-in/flow-out people.”

In 2013, Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the Large Retailer Accountability Act that would have required retailers with $1 billion in corporate revenue occupying at least 75,000 square feet in the district to pay its employees a living wage, amounting to $12.50 per hour in combined wages and benefits.

City Council failed to override the veto in September of last year. All current mayoral candidates voted in favor of the veto. According to the Washington Post last year, mayoral candidate David Cantania said that the bill “was not the right way to solve income inequality in this country.”

The absence of policymaking at a local level has caused some to look to the Hill.

Brittany Waters, an employee at Bloo Moo Yogurt, said that she believes the federal government should have more of a role in regulating minimum wage than local governments.

Nonetheless, the mayoral candidates in the upcoming election are now taking issue with current minimum wage laws. Last year, Muriel Bowser co-authored the Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act, which guaranteed paid sick leave for minimum wage workers. Both Bowser and Cantana have vocalized their support for an increase in minimum wage. After the Large Retailer Accountability Act failed to pass, Cantania was one of the first to introduce legislation to raise minimum wage.

Eduardo Flores, an employee at Robek’s Smoothies in Tenleytown, noted that minimum wage increases are better for people who work in the city but live elsewhere because though wages have increased, prices have as well.

“It would be helpful for people who don’t live in DC, but I can see it being difficult for students because not everyone has a job,” Flores said. “They have to pay for rent; not everyone is going to be like, ‘Well since you’re going to school I’m not going to make you pay rent this month.’ Students are the most affected people… so it’d be a good change for some people, but it’d be a disadvantage to others.”

Jeanne Lynch, a student at American University, says the rise in prices after the increase in minimum wage is simple economics.

“It’s a good thing to raise minimum wage,” Lynch said, “but it shouldn’t be a surprise when other prices also increase.”

Lynch also noted that though Chipotle prices and metro fairs will rise as a result of minimum wage increases, the cost of rent won’t rise immediately and insurance and health care prices will not be affected by minimum wage because they are regulated by the federal government, not the state.

Nora Kirk is also a student at American University and a waitress at Founding Farmers where she makes more than minimum wage.

“That’s the only reason I can survive in DC,” Kirk said, “and I’m still just barely surviving.”