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D.C. debates $11.75-an-hour minimum wage for big retailers

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer,Phil Mendelson,D.C. Council,Muriel Bowser

Previous efforts to get a "living wage" bill through the D.C. Council have flopped, so on Wednesday, unions, religious leaders and advocacy groups showed up in force to testify on behalf of this fresh effort.

"Even more so now that the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened significantly," Joslyn Williams, president of the AFL-CIO's Metropolitan Washington Council, said during Wednesday's hearing. "We strongly urge you to pass the Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013."

But business leaders slammed the legislation. For one, they suggested the bill would unfairly and arbitrarily apply to some businesses and not others -- Target but not Apple, Home Depot but not Starbucks.

The legislation, sponsored by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, would require businesses with 75,000 square feet of retail space and at least $1 billion in annual revenues to pay workers $11.75 an hour -- $3.50 more than the District's current $8.25 minimum wage.

Some have suggested that the "living wage" should be set at $12.50.

The bill would likely apply to an array of businesses, including Home Depot, Macy's and large national grocery stores. But much of the focus during Wednesday's council hearing on the bill focused on America's largest retailer: Walmart.

Walmart, which opposes the law, has plans to build six stores in D.C. -- all between 80,000 and 120,000 square feet. Two stores, one at Georgia and Missouri avenues NW and another at First and H streets NW, are scheduled to open this year.

"The bottom line is that we think actions that seek to block economic development are misguided, especially at a time when unemployment remains in the double-digits in some areas and city residents are spending more than a billion dollars in the suburbs," wrote Steven Restivo, a Walmart spokesman. "Plus, our wages and benefits already meet or exceed those offered by most of our competitors in the city, union and non-union alike."

Walmart did not testify before the council on Wednesday, drawing the ire of Councilman Vincent Orange.

"We're extremely disappointed that Walmart isn't here," he said during the hearing. "Where is Target? Where is Macy's? Where is Home Depot? Where is Walmart?"

Attempts to pass similar legislation have failed. This time, though, the majority of the council co-sponsored the legislation.

Still, the law's ultimate passage remains in doubt, and retailers have begun to reach out to council members.

Ward 4 Councilwoman and likely mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser co-sponsored the legislation, but during Wednesday's hearing, she posed a number of critical questions and did not endorse the proposal.

"I have co-sponsored with Mr. Mendelson," Bowser said. "I did that because I thought it was important for us to have this discussion today."

Staffers said late Wednesday afternoon that council members plan to rework some of the language in the bill in response to questions raised during the hearing.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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