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As the minimum wage debate heats up across the country, some D.C. lawmakers are considering a bill that would require large retailers, like Target and Wal-Mart, to increase their lowest wage by as much as $3.50. Opponents say the bill would add to D.C.’s less-than-business-friendly reputation, while others argue a higher wage would keep pace with the city’s rising cost-of-living. We’ll look at where the debate is headed.
- Mike DeBonis Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. PAUL BROWNFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Paul Brown from NPR News sitting in for Kojo. Coming up later this hour, the state of the campus newspaper where college journalism fits in today's media landscape. First, though, just when Wal-Mart seemed to have easy entry into the Washington market, the big-box retailer has hit a bump.
MR. PAUL BROWNThe D.C. Council is considering a bill that would require large retailers, such as Wal-Mart, to pay their employees at least a living wage, which lawmakers are pegging at 11.75 per hour. That's about $3 more than the standard federal minimum wage. Meanwhile, camps have already formed on both sides of this bill. Opponents are decrying the policy as anti-business. Supporters say would finally bring the city's lowest wages up to speed with the soaring cost of living in the Washington area.
MR. PAUL BROWNIn from and center in all of this, Wal-Mart, a multinational retail corporation, the biggest of the big-box retailers that set to open two stores in D.C. this year. We'd like you to join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or get in touch with us through our Facebook page or by sending us a tweet, @kojoshow. Our guest, Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post covering local politics. And, Mike, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MR. MIKE DEBONISThanks, Paul.
DEBONISThanks for having me.
BROWNSure enough. And you've been covering this race, the controversy over this bill, of course. Mike, the District currently sets its minimum wage well above the minimum, a dollar above the federal minimum wage. In fact, putting it at 8.25 an hour. So this bill that the D.C. Council members are considering called the Large Retailer Accountability Act, how would it change that?
DEBONISWhat it would do was -- would set a special minimum wage for the so-called large retailers, and that's pretty -- that's defined basically as any retail location that had -- of 75,000 square feet or more and-or if a -- the parent company of this business has annual revenues of a billion dollars or more. So that that is some pretty select and elite companies. And in, you know, I think that the author, authors and co-sponsors of this bill say that this is pretty broadly targeted at the sort of big-box-type retailers.
BROWNWhy did these lawmakers want to target these big-box retailers and not at every business, and is it fair that they should wanna do that?
DEBONISRight. The answer they would give you is that these are large corporations who can afford to pay their employees a fair wage that can give them benefits -- this really doesn't address benefits, but these are related issues that we're talking about here, you know, that can give their employees things so that residents are not -- even residents who are working are not forced to come to the government for further assistance even if though they have a job come for food stamps or Medicaid or things like that that place -- put a burden on taxpayers.
BROWNYeah. We've seen a lot of stories about people who are working one, two, sometimes three jobs who cannot support their...
BROWN...families and find themselves needing public assistance. So this is what the proponents of this bill then I take is see as a way to sort of do something about that ill in society.
DEBONISRight. And they're picking the sort of least, you know, the low-hanging fruit, the most sort of the retailers that, you know, we don't particularly had -- feel -- see as sympathetic. And, of course, this is all happening as Wal-Mart in recent years has announced this -- their intention to come in and open a number of stores in the city, and, you know, Wal-Mart, obviously, is a business that generates really strong reactions on all sides of the political spectrum.
DEBONISAnd here in D.C., traditionally progressive liberal politics, it's actually been surprising how little of that we heard up until now. And now, you know, we're trying to -- we're hearing some of the old debates over Wal-Mart, their business practices, how they treat their employees. And I think Wal-Mart, you know, they're, you know, sort of, you know, avoided this for a long time, but it's now front and center.
BROWNWell, there have been even times recently when Wal-Mart has favored slightly higher minimum wage, saying that its employees cannot afford some of the things that they might wanna buy at Wal-Mart or that many customers have not enough money at the end of the week...
BROWN...to buy necessities.
BROWNSo this seems to be something that Wal-Mart has been thinking about the very least.
DEBONISYes. I think when -- the big -- one of the big objections I've heard from Wal-Mart is that it -- they feel that it is unfairly targeted them and their business model. They point out that under the standards defined in this law, the large grocery store chains in the city that the Giants and the Safeway's would generally not -- would simply not be covered by this, and they believe that that, you know, there's a reason for that, and that, you know, Giants and Safeway have unionized workforces.
DEBONISObviously, unions are a powerful lobby group on the Council, and they feel that, you know, this is -- they basically carved out this exception for -- to protect the union workforces, and they're basically picking on Wal-Mart who wants to come in and, you know, create hundreds of jobs in the city.
BROWNIf you're listening now and you have an opinion, should Wal-Mart and other large retailers be forced to pay higher than minimum wage, is that fair, what do you think? What's your personal experience? Are you making enough money to get along and support your family comfortably? Would you welcome a wage that you would consider a living wage? 800-433-8850, one number to call.
BROWNAnd you can also send us an email at Kojo -- at "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," and send us a tweet as well @kojoshow, org. Let's go to Ryan in Bethesda, Md. Ryan, you are on the air. OK.
BROWNOK. We're having some problems. Ryan, are you there?
RYANYes. I'm here.
RYANI think this bill for the City Council is a good idea. The -- Wal-Mart's situation usually is such that they come in and have an area, lower their prices, lower than any of their competition locally could possibly do, drive all of those businesses out of business and force the employees of those businesses then get a job at Wal-Mart, paying them a fraction of what they're making before.
RYANSo it's actually lowers the standard of living to where they're then forced to shop at Wal-Mart in addition to working there. Also, Wal-Mart takes its -- the goods that it buys from other retailers, such as, for example, Johnson & Johnson, they become and what those particular units, they're going to pay for them like, say, baby shampoo. They say, oh, we're not gonna pay you 50 cents.
RYANWe're only gonna pay you 20 cents. So Johnson & Johnson says, oh, my gosh, buy more shampoo than anybody else in the country, and we're forced to close our factory down in America and send this thing over to China to -- so we can stay in business. Then all of a sudden, you've got all these people that are being unemployed from these factories in this country so that this one company can stay in business because Wal-Mart is buying more of that particular product than anybody else.
BROWNMike DeBonis, is there some truth to what Ryan here is saying, and does this bill try to address Ryan's concerns?
DEBONISWell, yeah, those are all very frequently raised points about Wal-Mart -- how Wal-Mart does business and why it's bad. Opponents of Wal-Mart talk about all of those things. This bill does not specifically address any of those things. It is not preventing Wal-Mart from coming in neighborhoods and closing and potentially closing businesses. It doesn't address their supply chain practices and how they get their money.
DEBONISBasically, all it says is we're gonna set a higher minimum wage for your workers. Now, would that trickle down into some of this other stuff, probably not. And, you know, part of Wal-Mart's appeal both, you know, generally as a business and politically and coming into D.C. has been say what you will about Wal-Mart, but our low, low prices are real. And, you know, you talk about the effects of wages on one side, but what about the effects of having lower priced goods and groceries available for D.C. residents so it allows them to stretch their dollars farther.
BROWNHow by the way does the current minimum wage match up to actual cost of living in D.C., and what do you know about how that compares to some other communities?
DEBONISIt's, you know, D.C. has, you know, as pretty much anyone in this listening area knows is an expensive place to live, and in District of Columbia with the -- especially with the housing situation we've had the last few years, it's very, very difficult to consider, you know, 9.25, which is the D.C. minimum wage, being able to support someone living alone in the city, let alone someone with a family, trying to raise a family on that much.
DEBONISIt will be very -- it's very difficult to find anything, you know, if you -- on the salary that you're making at 9.25 wage to find housing that, you know, anything more than a room in a group house or maybe a studio apartment.
BROWNSo there's a real issue here...
BROWN...probably for many...
BROWN...families also where...
BROWN...the main wage earner is working at a not terribly high-paying job.
DEBONISRight. And one of the outgrowths we've seen, this is sort of opening up the discussion about the minimum wage in D.C. again, I think that was helped along when the president mentioned in the State of the Union this year that minimum -- the minimum wage may be revisited, so that only become part of this conversation.
BROWNWell, let's go to Chris in Baltimore. Chris, you should be on the air shortly. And Chris is in Baltimore, Md. Chris, go ahead, please.
CHRISHi. I'd like to have my perspective on this. Pretty much from a business perspective, I'm an employer. I started a business in 2008. I primary got 54 employees. If the government makes it difficult for businesses to move in and employ people, they're gonna look at other places. So it's important, you know, instead of the government trying to fill in the holes through the wage austerity, allow businesses to hire people, allow unemployment levels to drop because business will be able to take advantage of, you know, employment. And once that unemployment rate drops, wages will naturally go up. That's a basic economic principle.
BROWNSo what's your concern, Chris, basically as a small business operator?
CHRISI think it's great to have business of all types move in and employing people. The more people that are employed whether it's for mom-and-pop shops or for Wal-Mart, the better it is for all of us. That's how the economy works. And I think it's very, you know, ill-advised for, you know, people on the Council to be thinking they're gonna be the invisible hand. You know, they don't have any skin in the game.
CHRISI mean if Wal-Mart is gonna spend, you know, a hundred million dollars on expansion, I mean that's a pretty sizable investment. I'm sure that's, you know, society is gonna reap awards from that.
BROWNDo you worry about other small business owners who might themselves unable to compete with Wal-Mart's prices and then also unable to compete with them on wages if Wal-Mart is forced to pay more...
CHRISI believe that's when they...
BROWN...than they can afford?
CHRIS...extend, but, you know, the economic environment is much like the natural environment. We have very little control over. We need to look at it and determine which way it's moving and make, you know, make some moves ourselves. If you're somebody who's in business for 10, 20, 30 years and say you're gonna continue to do business the way you used to, you're mistaken, and you're gonna out of business.
CHRISSo it's important for all business owners to take a real sober look at what's going on out there and, you know, reorganize their business to make it work in this modern economy.
BROWNChris, thanks very much for your call. And, Mike DeBonis, what do we know about how people are lining up in D.C. around this bill? Tell us a little about the business...
DEBONISYeah. I mean the business community obviously is very concerned about it, the idea that the Council would not single out a business but single out a sector of businesses for a special wage treatment. That's certainly unprecedented in this town, although other cities and jurisdictions across the country have looked at similar things and have passed in some areas. That said, the chairman of the D.C. Council, Phil Mendelson, introduced this bill earlier this year.
DEBONISIt was not wholly unsurprising. He had introduced a similar bill several times before actually. Previously, the bills did not move. They didn't go anywhere. They didn't have the support. They went to a committee chairman that just didn't support it. This time, it's a little different. Mendelson is the chairman of the Council now. He's got a little more clout. He got co-sponsorships from a majority of the councilmembers.
DEBONISIt went to a committee that has a chairman that's at least amenable to having a conversation about it. We had a hearing on it last week that was very well attended. A lot of debate was heard there. The question is, you know, now that everyone has had their say, what's gonna happen with the bill? And, you know, I'm not -- I don't think that this is gonna move tomorrow or next week, maybe a few months, people are -- the business community is very opposed to this, obviously.
DEBONISI think a lot of these councilmembers who co-sponsored the bill really co-sponsored it to sort of have the conversation, and it was meant to be a statement of absolute support. So...
BROWNIf this bill were to pass, does it look likely that Wal-Mart would open its stores in D.C. anyway?
DEBONISYou know, they've been very coy about it. You know, you ask that question and, you know, you don't really get a straight answer. Let me just say this first off, I don't -- I think it's pretty unlikely that the bill will pass. I think the mayor has hinted he has not said outright but as he's hinted he would veto the bill. He's put a lot of his political capital into supporting Wal-Mart's efforts in particular to getting them to open a store in his own neighborhood across the Anacostia River in Ward 7. I would really doubt that he would go on a limp and support this bill if it -- if there were even the hint that it could to complicate those efforts.
BROWNLet's talk with Jenny for a moment here in Washington, D.C. Jenny, you're on the air.
JENNYGood afternoon. So this is a small bright light to hear that the Council is possibly going to mandate that Wal-Mart pay the living wage. I work at an agency as a clinical director for homeless youth, and we have been struggling in the past year with huge cuts. And we have so many unemployed children who we have in our shelters. And if we could get a minimum wage, get our children employed, not to mention their parents, I don't think we would be struggling to help these young kids when we have lost so much of our moneys towards housing these kids. So...
BROWNSo what you're saying is if you could get -- if it were possible to have a higher minimum wage at some of these big retailers where people work?
JENNYAbsolutely. And, you know, it's interesting obviously Wal-Mart has not have the best of business practices, and I think if the average American certainly those here in Washington would watch the documentary on Wal-Mart, they might be a little more informed about this. But, yes, I'm seeing this day to day. We have children knocking on our doors to come in. We've lost many of our beds, and we have to -- we're literally even placing them in staffs' homes because we don't have enough money our beds have been taken from us through the City Council, through the D.C. moneys.
JENNYSo to me, if we could have our kids and they're so willing to work they come in every night. We have programs for them to get their resumes together to get jobs, but they're not out there. And if they are, the source of the income and also their parents, they can't live on this.
BROWNIt's just not enough.
JENNYOh, my God, it's...
JENNY...absolutely not enough.
JENNYAnd even on the streets.
BROWNJenny, thanks very much for your call. So where does this leaves us, Michael?
DEBONISYou know, Jenny made a lot of great points. You know, the city budget is, you know, there have been a lot of cuts recently, programs like those for homeless youth have been some of the first things that get cut. You know, I think what the backers of Wal-Mart wants to do in terms of coming into the city will say is, you know, they're gonna bring jobs, and, you know, you may argue with what they're going to pay, but, you know, it's a free market, and there are people in the city who are willing to work for that wage.
DEBONISWal-Mart will say, listen, we pay a competitive wage. You know, it was too low, people wouldn't come work for us. At the same time, like what I'm saying, it's an expensive city to live in, and people who work, you know, who are working for full time, you know, there's a sense that you should be able to afford a home, to, you know, meet your basic needs, meet your needs and, you know, go on with your life without, you know, the help of the government. And the idea is that at the current minimum wage and Wal-Mart is willing to pay or these other large retailers we're talking about, you're not able to do that.
BROWNA lot to talk about here and I'd like to thank everyone for calling in who has -- we're about out of time for this segment of the show. Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post covers local politics and blogs, thanks very much for coming in and sort of walking us through this. It looks as though the chances for the so-called Wal-Mart bill are slim but that the bill...
DEBONISSlim but not impossible.
BROWNSlim and not impossible. But that the bill is getting -- the discussion out there which as you also say is apparently one of the objectives of the people promoting it.
INTERVIEWERSo thanks very much, Mike, from The Washington Post.
BROWNAppreciate having you with us. It's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." We'll be back after a brief break. And the subject, college newspapers, the future of journalism. Stay with us, 88.5 WAMU.
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