Judge refuses to halt Washington's minimum wage hike

by Associated Press

December 29, 2010


OLYMPIA, Wash. - A Kittitas County judge on Wednesday rejected a request to halt a 12-cent increase to the state's minimum wage that takes effect this weekend.

Superior Court Judge Scott Sparks ruled against the summary judgment request made by a coalition of business groups that sued the state last month over the decision to raise the minimum wage to $8.67 an hour.

The groups opposed to the increase argue that the minimum wage can't be increased in 2011 because this year's Consumer Price Index did not reflect a net increase in the cost of living since 2008. A voter initiative ties the state's minimum wage to the index.

The coalition opposed to the increase includes the Washington Farm Bureau, the Washington Restaurant Association and the Washington Retail Association. Messages left with the groups Wednesday were not immediately returned.

Suchi Sharma, an attorney with the state's Department of Labor and Industries who attended Wednesday's hearing in Ellensburg, said that the group's lawsuit remained active, but that under the judge's ruling, the minimum wage will increase on Saturday as scheduled.

The agency's decision in October to raise the rate came after conflicting legal opinions from the state attorney general and the authors of the 1998 voter initiative that tied the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index.

The state wage in 2010 didn't increase, the first time that's happened since the initiative passed, because inflation, as measured by the price index, fell last year. It's now growing again, but at a slower rate.

Recent federal numbers showed an overall increase in the index, though it's still lower than the last time the state minimum wage increased in January 2009.

The state agency had initially asked Attorney General Rob McKenna if the state could increase the minimum wage if the price index increases to less than the level the current wage is based upon. McKenna said no, but the Washington state Labor Council, the group behind Initiative 688, opposed McKenna's interpretation.

While the state's current rate of $8.55 an hour is already the highest state minimum wage in the nation, a few cities, like San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M., have their own laws and have higher rates. San Francisco's current rate of $9.79 will increase to $9.92 next year. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Oregon, which also has an initiative-based minimum wage law, announced last month that its minimum wage was going up by 10 cents to $8.50 an hour in 2011.

Colorado's minimum wage dropped slightly this year, from $7.28 to the federal level of $7.25, because of the drop in inflation, but it will increase to $7.36 on Saturday.

Other states with adjustable minimum wages are Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, and Vermont.

Most states that tie the wage to inflation make no provision for lowering the amount, including Washington, so the minimum wage stays flat if the price index falls.