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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Employers, employees prepare for costs, benefits of coming $1.50 minimum wage increase

A supporter holds up a petition for Initiative 1433, a ballot measure to raise Washington state's minimum wage and allow all workers in the state to earn paid sick leave, on March 22, 2016, in Everett. That initiative passed, and the state’s minimum wage is set to jump to $13.50 an hour on New Year’s Day. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

When the state minimum wage increases from $12 to $13.50 an hour on Jan. 1, many workers in Washington will have reason to celebrate. But others, like Julia Payne, say they also see cause for concern.

While Payne sees positives in a more livable minimum wage, she’s worried employers might pass the buck (or in this case, the $1.50) to the most vulnerable and that people like her – people who suffer from a chronic illness – could fall through the cracks.

The coming increase in minimum hourly pay is the biggest jump since 2017, when Initiative 1433 began a multistage process of raising the state minimum wage by boosting it $1.53, to $11 an hour. It rose 50 cents each of the next two years. Beginning in 2021, the initiative requires the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries to make an annual cost-of-living adjustment to the minimum wage.

Washington has been above the federal minimum wage since 1999, when the federal minimum wage was set at $5.15. Twenty-two states, including Idaho, are at the current minimum wage of$7.25.

Payne is worried that, due to significant accommodations her employer provides, the raise will decrease her hours. Payne has a spinal auto immune disease called ankylosing spondylitis.

Payne is employed through a Social Security program called “Ticket to Work.”

Payne is on Medicaid, which doesn’t cover about $2,000 of her medical costs. Without supplemental income, she couldn’t afford her care, but if she works too many hours at the new wage, her calculated income could cause her to lose her medical benefits altogether. It’s a balancing act.

“Mine is a unique perspective on it, because the federal guidelines aren’t keeping up with the minimum wage increases,” Payne said. “I have a debilitating spinal disease, so full-time work is not a viable option for me. But being a part-time employee, there’s no medical offered through work, so I have to have Medicaid.”

Payne said she hasn’t had any indication from her employer that her hours will be cut, but she did say they instituted a hiring freeze. She worries what tomorrow will bring, especially living with a degenerative disease that could soon require her to use a wheelchair at work.

Cara Coon, Greater Spokane Inc. communications and public affairs vice president, said she hasn’t had a conversation with her members about the 2020 change as of yet, but the organization is always concerned about the health of the Spokane business community.

“This is the third year in a row that wages have gone up, and I think the business community is by and large getting used to the raise, but I think it’s still impactful,” Coon said.

Mike Stone, city of Spokane Valley Parks and Recreation director, said his department doesn’t plan to get rid of employees or decrease hours, but he estimates 15 to 20 seasonal employees will see their pay go up. Additionally, CenterPlace – Spokane Valley’s event center – has a contract with the YMCA for aquatic employees, and he said some of those employees will make more per hour.

Though tough on Payne, the wage increase means life should get easier for Connor Brown-Ciolli, Payne’s 20-year-old son. He is paying around $700 for the apartment he and his girlfriend are renting.

Brown-Ciolli’s girlfriend is currently attending Paul Mitchell – “She wants to eventually be a private business owner and just be a full on threat” – and Payne said their funds are tight. Brown-Ciolli is showing signs of having an auto immune disease, but for now he is capable of working full time – when he can get the hours.

“For him, going up $1.50 an hour is going to make a world of difference,” Payne said. “They’ve had months where they’re just 20 bucks shy or 10 bucks shy, and they had to come out of the grocery budget or what have you.”

At the same time, she said her son dreads the potential letter that his rent is raised, “which will put him right back in the same boat.”

“The unfortunate reality of the economy is that when you do up the minimum wage, it takes time for the rest of the economy to adapt to that change,” Payne said.