Ted S. Warren / AP

Judge clears way for Seattle’s minimum wage

A federal judge rejected claims by Big Food franchises that Seattle’s minimum wage discriminates against them

A federal judge on Tuesday cleared the way for Seattle's new minimum wage law to take effect as planned next month, rejecting claims by franchises of big national chains that it discriminates against them.

In his 43-page decision Tuesday night, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones rejected all of the arguments brought forth by the International Franchise Association, which represents national chains ranging from fast food joints to hotels.

"Although plaintiffs assert that they will suffer competitive injury, loss of customers, loss of goodwill and the risk of going out of business, the court finds that these allegations are conclusory and unsupported by the facts in the record," he wrote.

"This is a great day for Seattle's fast food franchise workers," Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement Tuesday night. "This ruling ensures that on April 1, the minimum wage will go up for everyone in our city."

Ashley Bach, a spokesman for the International Franchise Association, said the organization was reviewing the ruling and did not have any immediate comment.

Lawyers for the franchise association had insisted that they were challenging not the minimum wage itself but how quickly their clients must adopt it.

The Seattle City Council voted to approve the $15 minimum hourly wage in June 2014, and the first phase of the increase is scheduled to begin on April 1. Although the law will require all employers in Seattle to pay their employees a minimum of $15 per hour by Jan. 1, 2021, the wage increase will hit different businesses at different times. Employers with 500 or fewer workers will be required to pay at least $10 per hour starting in April; for businesses that employ more than 500 people nationwide, including franchisees, the minimum wage as of April will be $11.

In arguments before the judge last week, lawyers for the franchise association said that was unfair. The franchises are essentially small businesses, but by 2017 they will have to pay their workers a minimum wage $4 an hour more than their purely local competitors.

The franchises cited various legal grounds, including the argument that the city's law would affect interstate commerce — in violation of the U.S. Constitution, which reserves its regulation to the federal government.

Jones dismissed that notion and ruled that the possible harm to the franchises "does not outweigh the concrete harm" that would be suffered by employees who are entitled to an increase in their wages under the law.

He said there was simply "no evidence" that the city's ordinance would have any effect at all on interstate commerce and that its adoption fell well within the purview of the City Council and the mayor. The city argued that the advantages franchises receive from their national organizations — including marketing, advertising and training — provided legitimate reason to require them to adopt the $15 wage more quickly.

"The ordinance is, at least putatively, designed to assist low-wage workers, to decrease the gender wage gap and to ensure that workers can better support and care for their families and fully participate in Seattle's civic, cultural and economic life — objectives that are well within the scope of legitimate municipal policymaking," the judge wrote.

The franchises sought a preliminary injunction that would block the relevant part of the law from taking effect, pending a ruling from Jones expected later this year on the full merits of the case.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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