Housing Complex

Council Passes Living Wage Bill

The soon-to-open Walmart at 1st and H streets NW.

The D.C. Council passed the hotly debated bill this afternoon to require large retailers to pay their employees a living wage of $12.50 an hour. The 8-5 vote on the Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013 came after nearly an hour of contentious debate.

"The District government has an obligation not just to encourage the development and growth of jobs, but to encourage the development and growth of quality jobs," said Chairman Phil Mendelson, who introduced the bill, before casting his "yes" vote. Councilmembers Vincent Orange, Marion Barry, Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, Jim Graham, David Grosso, and Kenyan McDuffie joined him in voting for the bill.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh praised the bill's intentions but voted against it for fear of unintended consequences. "The stated purpose of this bill is that large retailers pay a living wage, and that’s certainly an objective we should pursue," she said. "But this legislation isn’t sufficiently tailored to achieve those goals and is likely to be counterproductive." Cheh said the bill was both too broad (it also pays the living wage to Maryland and Virginia residents working in the District) and too narrow (it only applies to large retailers).

The vote came after the bill was narrowed by an amendment from Mendelson, Evans, and Orange that restored an earlier provision, which limits the effects of the bill to retailers with more than 75,000 square feet of store space. Throughout the process, the legislation has only applied to retailers whose parent company grosses at least $1 billion per year.

Orange, who chairs the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, amended the bill in May to include all retailers grossing at least $1 billion per year, regardless of physical size. At the time, he said the bill could no longer be called the "Walmart bill," as it's popularly known. But with the square footage restriction reinserted, it's once again largely a shot at Walmart, which is planning six stores in the District. Only a handful of existing D.C. retailers will be affected.

"If this is about sticking it to Walmart, we should be honest and say so," said Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser during today's debate, before voting against the bill.

Last night, D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang held a call with reporters in which she criticized the bill for discouraging retailers from opening stores in D.C. "This is great economic development for Maryland and Virginia," she said. Lang said the Chamber does not yet have any plans to try to prevent implementation of the bill.

After a second Council vote on July 10, the bill will go to Mayor Vince Gray, who has been critical of it, for a signature or a veto. Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update 5:25 p.m.: In a letter to Mendelson earlier today, Gray urged caution on the bill but did not take a firm stance. "I urge the Council to take additional time to continue its work through this significantly important bill to ensure an appropriate balance is achieved between improving the lives of our workforce, and encouraging business attraction and retention." Meanwhile, Walmart sends out a statement blasting legislation it says "will ultimately lead to higher prices, less jobs and fewer stores from some of the country’s largest retailers."

And Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who voted against the bill, says in a statement, "The Large Retailer Act has negative impacts and direct consequences for some of the poorest areas of our city. The act creates a barrier to getting large grocery stores, other retailers and job creators to locate east of the river, in the communities of our city with the greatest need. D.C. has one of the highest costs of living the nation, and this act perpetuates those impossibly high costs in our most depressed communities. The act also hurts those in need of jobs, especially youth seeking after school jobs.”

Photo by Aaron Wiener

  • DC Guy

    DC Council, making the case for congressional rule one vote at a time.

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  • C. Miller

    So now not only will local businesses lose their customers to big box stores, they'll also lose their employees. Brilliant

  • Dno

    This is counterproductive. I realize DC is now a desirable market for retailers and I'm all for negotiating from a position of strength, but there's a point where bravado veers into stupidity, and the Councilmembers that voted for this very flawed bill crossed that line. Each has lost my vote in any future mayoral, Ward 1, or at-large elections.

  • T.B. Hutchins

    I live in NE DC right between two pending Walmart stores that are under construction. Not only are these stores going to drive small businesses out of business, but they are going to provide disrespectful, inadequate jobs for DC. We need respectful employers here that are willing to pay a living wage so workers can afford to pay their bills. Walmart is known for keeping part-time workers under a certain amount of hours so they don't qualify for full-time and then they hand out information about how to apply for welfare. What a shame. COSTCO was a great investment. Walmart is not.

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  • Art

    T.B. Hutchins, I am sure you would not make your comment without knowing the facts. So please provide some examples of the small businesses in NE that you believe will be driven out of business by Walmart. How many full-time employees do those businesses have? How many of those employees earn a "living wage"? Just curious.

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  • SEis4ME

    Gotta give props to Saint Wells on this one for voting w/his head and not his heart.


    did I just say that

    *watching for lightning strike*

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  • CityRez

    Wegmans' reps have made it clear that they will not build at the former Walter Reed site if this bill is signed into law.

  • Wilhelm Ogle

    It is time for Congress to do it's job and put an end to the unconstitutional, and thus illegal, "Home Rule".

  • B

    I'm glad the council supported a living wage and will not vote for anybody who opposed the bill.

    It's pretty interesting to see all the comments from people who are opposed to providing fair wages. The fact is, large corporations are not going to pay a decent salary simply because it's a nice thing to do. They normally only do it because of market forces or unions or public policy.

    -Labor market forces don't work because Wal-Mart's too big and can drive other businesses out with low prices, which helps them keep paying low labor rates.
    -Unions don't work because they're too weak.
    -Policy will only work if the politicians stand up for working people rather than sucking up to rich corporations.

  • Dno

    B, if labor unions are so weak, then why are unionized retailers exempt from this legislation? Surely their employees would also benefit from it if it applied to them, no?

    This bill is corrupt, and the fact that Vince Orange is pushing it while circling Machen's drain makes it all the worse. Shame on Evans for supporting this - pure pandering. Gray is a smart man, and I'm still hopeful he'll veto it.

  • adam

    If a living wage is so morally right and necessary, why exempt all but a few employers from the bill?

    Answer: because the point is to target a company that certain folks irrationally hate.

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