Is the future something that will happen to us? No, because as citizens in a democracy, we can make choices and put forward ideas that actually shape that future. So in anticipation of 2016, here are some ideas about how we as a people can shape our own future:
In 1998 the people passed the first minimum wage initiative that included an automatic annual cost-of-living adjustment to keep up with inflation. That resulted in our state having the best minimum wage in the country, currently at $9.47 an hour. But that is still way behind the actual purchasing power the minimum wage had in 1968. And it is way behind the growth in productivity since then. These facts led to Seattle’s stepped minimum wage increase to $15. On Jan. 1, in Seattle, minimum wage workers in small businesses will see their wages increase to $10.50 an hour. Seattle is not alone. In the election last November, Tacoma voters approved a minimum wage increase to $10.35, effective Feb. 1.
But for the rest of the minimum wage workers in our state the news is not so good. That’s because the official inflation index showed no movement in 2015, so the minimum wage will stay put. And that doesn’t help with increasing rent, health insurance premiums, day care costs, and your Comcast bill! State legislators had a chance to remedy this in 2015. State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, joined by Snohomish County Reps. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline; Derek Stanford, D-Bothell; Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo; Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish; Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds; Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace; and June Robinson, D-Everett, sponsored a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $10 on Jan. 1 On a party line vote, this bill passed the House. But it was dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled state Senate.
A similar fate awaited legislation for paid sick days. Seattle and Tacoma both have paid sick days ordinances, put in place by coalitions of active citizens. But if you live elsewhere in our state, including Everett, and if you get sick, or your child is sick, and you stay home from work, you can lose your job, lose your pay or both. (You have no rights as a worker, without a union.) State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, sponsored a bill to enable workers to take up to five days of paid sick leave a year, without retaliation from their employers. This bill also passed on a party-line vote, with all Democrats supporting it. But it too was dead on arrival in the state Senate.
We could just give the Republicans a Mulligan, and suggest they start over in 2016 and pass a statewide minimum wage increase and a paid sick days law. That’s probably unlikely. But the action doesn’t stop there. There is also the chance that activists will organize an initiative to increase the minimum wage and enable paid sick days statewide in 2016. And that’s where you as a voter can help to create the future, instead of just letting it happen to you.
Republicans aren’t the only ones who could use a Mulligan. This year we have heard a lot about Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook creating family leave benefits. That’s good for the salaried employees at those companies. But without actual law, the vast majority of workers don’t get family leave. Rep. June Robinson introduced legislation for universal family leave insurance (FLI). It enables workers to get 12 weeks of compensation at two-thirds pay to care for new-born or newly adopted children. It’s funded by a two-tenths of 1 percent payroll premium. For a culture that believes in work and family, family leave insurance is just common sense. The House Labor and Commerce Committee passed the program. But the Democratic leadership bottled up this legislation. In 2016 the House Democrats could unbottle family leave insurance. It’s been on their agenda since 2007, when they passed family leave insurance but stripped away its funding, leaving it as empty policy. Now they have the power to pass an actual law that enables citizens to balance work and family.
A minimum wage increase, statewide paid sick days, and family leave insurance: Instead of watching the future happen to us, we can make the future happen. That would be a good thing to look back to a year from now. Happy New Year!