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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Olympia

Washington’s minimum wage, the nation’s highest, rising to $8.55 in January…

It will be a happier new year, at least for some Washington workers.

Tomorrow, Washington’s minimum wage will rise to $8.55 an hour from $8.07, a full $2 an hour higher than in neighboring Idaho.

“Washington’s is still the highest, followed by Oregon, California and Massachusetts,” said Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industries.

In Idaho, the minimum wage is the federal $6.55 an hour. That’s slated to rise to $7.25 in July.

Some Washington employers aren’t happy about the 48-cent-an-hour increase. The state’s restaurant association would prefer a lower training wage for 16-year-old workers, or a cap on minimum-wage increases during bad economic times.

“We want to pay fair wages, but we’re facing an industry crisis here,” said spokeswoman Camille St. Onge. Gov. Chris Gregoire and her supporters hammered Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi earlier this year for saying he would support a lower minimum wage for young employees.

Higher wages, St. Onge said, will put a greater squeeze on restaurants already struggling with thin profit margins as worried consumers eat out less. Consumers will likely see higher menu prices, she said.

Washington voters have repeatedly approved a higher state minimum wage, most recently with Initiative 688 in 1998. At the time, the state’s minimum wage was $4.90 an hour.

I-688 passed overwhelmingly, 66 percent to 34 percent. It linked the wage to the federal consumer price index for urban and clerical workers. The index is meant to measure the cost of goods and services needed for day-to-day living, Fischer said. The industries with the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers are food services, retail and agriculture.

Last year, Washington’s minimum wage rose 14 cents, or less than 2 percent. This year’s 48-cent increase is nearly 6 percent.

“As a 63-year-old, that sounds like a lot of money,” said Richard Reed, a retired flooring installer in Chattaroy. “But I know that the disparity between those at the bottom of the income ladder and those at the top has only gotten greater over the years in this country. So in that light, I think that they need it and deserve it.”

In Spokane, advocates for low-income workers are trying to set a local “living wage” for employees of large retailers in the city. The wage would be 130 percent of the state minimum wage, which would work out to about $11.12 an hour in January.

“We’re trying to do a little bit to end the cycle of poverty here,” said Shane Russell, with Spokane’s Peace and Justice Action League. Big-box retailers can afford to pay more, he said, and the impact on consumers would likely be small.

Proponents tried in 2007 to submit enough signatures to put the living-wage plan on a city ballot, but didn’t have enough valid signatures. They’ll try again in 2009, Russell said.

Short takes and breaking news from the Washington Legislature and the state capital.