Martina Phelps says the Seattle City Council's historic vote Monday to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour could change her life.
Phelps, 22, earns $9.47 per hour working for a McDonald's restaurant near downtown. She wants to move out of her mother's South Seattle home, and she wants to go back to school. She says those things could happen now that the city will have the naion's highest minimum wage.
"It's hard right now," she told USA TODAY hours before the vote. "I have been trying to save up for school but I just can't do it. This would mean a lot."
The council unanimously approved the measure before a packed house.
The plan, which includes a lower training wage aimed at teenagers, will phase in the higher, local minimum over three to seven years, depending on the size of the business and benefits they provide employees.
City officials estimate that about a quarter of workers earn less than $15 an hour. Full-time work at that rate translates to about $31,000 a year.
A trade group representing corporate franchises said it would sue to overturn the plan, saying it puts Seattle owners at a disadvantage to other small businesses.
Washington already has the highest state minimum wage at $9.32 an hour, well above the federal minimum of $7.25.
Seattle's Chamber of Commerce initially balked at the wage plan. Craig Dawson, CEO of Retail Lockbox in Seattle, was among those suggesting early on that small and minority businesses would be put at risk by the increase in personnel costs.
Compromises were put forward, and a rancorous Council committee meeting last week resulted in some adjustments to the plan that appeared to pave the way for easy passage.
"A year ago, $15 was just a number on fast food strikers' picket signs," Working Washington, a coalition of labor and community groups, said in a statement issued Monday. "Today it's set to become reality for 100,000 Seattle workers."
The ordinance was drafted by an advisory group of labor, business and non-profit professionals. In a contentious meeting last week, a City Council committee agreed to delay implementation of the ordinance to next April instead of Jan. 1. They rejected amendments that would have sped up phase-ins and would have excluded tips from total compensation. The committee also approved a sub-minimum wage for teenagers.
Businesses employing more than 500 workers would be required to pay $15 an hour by 2017, or 2018 if health care is offered. Smaller businesses would have five to seven years to phase in the increase. Part of employees' tips and benefits could be applied toward the higher minimum for as long as 11 years.
The plan was approved unanimously by the City Council members at the meeting, indicating that passage into law was likely.
"Seattle, and other cities, are taking direct action to close our nation's huge income gap because the federal and state governments have failed to do so," City Councilman Nick Licata said. "By significantly raising the minimum wage, Seattle's prosperity will be shared by more people and create a sustainable model for continued growth."
A group called 15 Now is collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would hasten the timeline to $15 for all workers. The measure would amend the city's charter to create an immediate wage hike for large businesses, a three-year phase-in for organizations with fewer than 250 full-time employees, and the elimination of the training wage. 15 Now needs more than 30,000 signatures to make it on the ballot.
Crystal Thompson, 33, told The Seattle Times she has been working at a local Domino's Pizza for five years and still makes minimum wage. She says her responsibilities have grown, and she sometimes is responsible for opening and closing the store.
"I think I deserve a raise," she told the Times.
Contributing: Michael Winter; Associated Press