D.C. could force huge wage increase on city's big retailers

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Photo - OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 08:  The Wal-Mart logo is displayed on the exterior of a Wal-Mart store January 8, 2009 in Oakland, California. Wal-Mart has posted weaker than expected same store sales for December and has lowered its fourth quarter earnings forecast to 91 cents to 94 cents $1.03 to $1.07 a share.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 08: The Wal-Mart logo is displayed on the exterior of a Wal-Mart store January 8, 2009 in Oakland, California. Wal-Mart has posted weaker than expected same store sales for December and has lowered its fourth quarter earnings forecast to 91 cents to 94 cents $1.03 to $1.07 a share. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson's bill to require big retailers to pay their employees a "living wage" is back, this time with nearly the entire council backing it. The legislation would require any business with 75,000 square feet or more of retail space and a parent company with annual gross revenues of more than $1 billion to pay workers at least $11.75 an hour -- $3.50 more than the District's minimum wage.

Some likely targets of the bill: Walmart, Lowe's, Giant and Safeway.

"I'm very concerned about the reputation of some of these large retailers," Mendelson said. "Because they are so large, they have undue influence in the market in the sense that they can hold down wages -- and that's just really hard on workers."

Mendelson originally proposed the bill in 2011, but he said that it got lost in the legislative shuffle. This time around, with about 10 council members co-sponsoring the bill, Mendelson said he is "very hopeful" for passage of the "Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013."

Donald Parsons, an economist at George Washington University, said the living wage proposal seemed to amount to a two-tiered minimum wage, one for small retailers and one for big ones.

American University economist Robert Lerman called the legislation misguided.

As a matter of principle, Lerman said, "I don't think it's a particularly healthy thing for the city government to start picking up -- this business gets one treatment and one gets another."

Respect DC, an organization that lobbies for a living wage, supports Mendelson's bill. However, Mike Wilson, an organizer for the group, said they would like to see the living wage set to $12.50 -- $4.25 higher than the District's minimum wage. That number, Wilson said, would match the living wage that city contractors are required to pay.

Mendelson said he was amendable to changing the number.

"That's something that gets worked out in the public hearing," he said.

As it is currently written, the bill mandates that the mayor adjust the living wage every year based on any increases to the Consumer Price Index for urban consumers in the Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Mendelson says the bill isn't meant to target Walmart in particular.

"I know there are folks who hate Walmart. I don't think it would be successful to wage an anti-Walmart campaign," Mendelson said. "But I think it's fair to say, 'Walmart' -- if that's who we're talking about -- 'if you want to live in this city, you've got to pay a fair wage to your employees.' "

About two years ago, Walmart announced it would open its first four stores in the District and promised to bring 1,200 jobs. Subsequently, the company said it would build two additional stores in the city. But, as of yet, D.C. residents still need to head out to Maryland or Virginia if they want to visit the giant retailer.

Walmart, Lowe's, Safeway and Giant did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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