King County Sets New Record with Highest Minimum Wage in the Nation

By: Alyssa Miller | Last updated: Jun 04, 2024

The government council in King County, Washington has just approved a raise in the minimum wage which will push it to over $20 an hour. The minimum wage will now be $20.29 across unincorporated King County, and the wage will continue to increase based on inflation.

Businesses with more than 500 employees will see the new wage minimum become effective January 1, 2025, while other businesses have until 2030 to be held to the new standard but will be subjected to incremental increases. 

Wage Increase

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan King County Council voted to raise the minimum wage, boosting it by as much as $3 an hour in some unincorporated areas.

Office workers working together on their computers.

Source: Arlington Research/Unsplash

The $20.29 minimum wage exceeds the level in Seattle and ties Tukwila for the top minimum wage in the entire United States.


Lagging Behind

The council members who sponsored the minimum wage ordinance argue that some areas in King County were being left behind nearby cities in terms of wages.

A metro bus stopped for passengers in King County

Source: PNWTransit/Wikimedia

“With the cost-of-living skyrocketing in King County, it’s crucial that our region’s workers have the means to survive,” said King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, author of the legislation. 

Covering Rent and Groceries

Zahilay argued that King County residents should be able to afford basic necessities while only having to work one job.

A fully stocked grocery store aisle with food on two rows lining the aisle.

Source: Franki Chamaki/Unsplash

“One job should be enough to cover basic needs like rent and groceries. Today, the King County Council took a significant step toward that goal by passing my minimum wage ordinance,” said Zahilay.

Uplifting the Community

In a statement released on the King County government website, Zahilay was ecstatic about the final result which required cooperation from many in the community.

A sign for the King County Metro Safety and Training Center

Source: NickBax/Wikimedia

“I’m immensely proud and grateful for the collaboration with local unions, small businesses, and fellow councilmembers. Together, we’re uplifting our communities across the county, making King County an exceptional place to work, live, and raise a family,” said Zahilay.

State Minimum Wage

Currently, the minimum wage in Washington state is $16.28 per hour. King County council members who cosponsored the bill like Rod Dembowski, Teresa Mosqueda, and Jorge L. Barón felt that in certain areas this simply was not enough.

The capitol of Washington State seen during the day.

Source: Bobak Ha'Eri/Wikimedia

“Everyone working in King County should have the opportunity to benefit from our strong economy,” Dembowski said.


Ladder of Opportunity

Dembowski felt that there have been too many hardworking residents left struggling to make ends meet as the cost of living becomes difficult for many to manage.

A wooden ladder seen against a blue sky.

Source: Xin/Unsplash

“I see too many hard-working King County residents being left behind and struggling to meet the cost of living. This law extends a ladder of opportunity to tens of thousands of hard-working King County residents. I am proud to have cosponsored and worked to pass it,” Dembowski said.


Cost of Living In Washington

A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in February found that area prices around the Seattle area, which King County is a part of for the Consumer Price Index, rose 1.2 percent in two months and that prices are up 4.3 percent from just a year ago.

A dramatic aerial view of the Seattle cityscape with skyscrapers and the waterfront, under a purple and orange gradient sky

Source: Kyler Boone/Unsplash

In the West Census region as a whole, which includes Washington, California, and other western states, prices rose 0.9 percent in February and are up 3.6 percent from last year.


Exceptions for Small Businesses

While the King County ordinance does set the wage rate at $20.29 there are exceptions made for smaller businesses who post low revenues and have few employees.

A woman sits on a light brown couch working on a laptop with a cup of coffee on a coffee table in front of her.

Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

Any employer with 15 or fewer employees and making less than $2 million in annual gross revenue will only have to offer a $17.29 minimum wage. While this is lower than the $20.29, it is still a higher amount than the state minimum wage.


Higher Wage for Higher Revenue

However, even if a business has 15 or fewer employees, if it takes in more than $2 million in annual gross revenue, it will be subjected to a higher $18.29 per hour minimum wage.

Two people sit at a desk in an office during a meeting.

Source: Jason Goodman/Unsplash

There was a proposed amendment to include tips, gratuity, and employer health care premiums in the minimum wage, but it ultimately failed.


Proven Strategy

Council member Mosqueda extolled the virtues of raising the minimum wage as the ordinance was approved.

A group of construction workers standing together with yellow hats.

Source: Arron Choi/Unsplash

“Raising the minimum wage is a proven strategy to put more money in our local economies,” Mosqueda said. “Our working families are struggling to afford housing, placing food on their tables, and having anything left at the end of the month to save for a rainy day. I’m proud to help workers get closer to a living wage and happy that we are giving our small businesses more time to make this adjustment.”


Criticism of the Wage Increase

Many business owners and workers testified at the King County Council meeting in opposition to the ordinance, with restaurant industry reports saying that the increase will hit the average profit margin between 3% and 5%.

Three small cows walking on green grass in Florida.

Source: Adrien/Unsplash

“This bill as written will decimate [worker] income,” one Cascadia Pizza representative said. Some dairy farmers are also worried since the price of milk is determined by the federal government, so they can’t just raise prices to make up for the increased labor costs.


What Is the Federal Minimum Wage? 

The federal minimum wage has been sitting at $7.25 an hour since 2009, which isn’t enough for most people to support themselves and their families in a post-COVID-19 world where inflation is running rampant.

A person handing another a ten-dollar bill.

Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Now, 22 states and 38 cities are taking it upon themselves to set the minimum wage higher than the federal level.


20 States Follow Minimum Wage

While 20 states have set the minimum wage to the federal minimum level, a majority of hourly-paid workers are not earning this amount.

An American flag superimposed with coins and a graph showing inflation

Source: Freepik

In Louisiana and Mississippi, 3% of hourly-paid workers are earning the federal minimum wage. In Alabama and Utah, only 1% of hourly-paid workers earn this wage.


Who Is Earning Federal Minimum Wage in the US?

Most employers know that the federal minimum wage isn’t livable in 2024. Those who earn the federal minimum wage are typically tipped workers who are required to be paid a federal minimum wage of $2.13 cash wage in addition to tips.

A view of a fast-food counter with workers in uniform and face masks preparing orders, with a digital menu screen in the background

Source: Visual Karsa/Unsplash

While legislative efforts to increase the federal minimum wage have been pushed for since 2009, with the latest act proposing to increase the minimum wage to $17 an hour by 2028, these efforts have been largely shot down.


Minimum Wage Earner Demographics

According to the 2023 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, workers who are likely to make a minimum wage or less in 2022 are under the age of 25.

Cars lined up at a fast food drive-thru while one customer pays for their food

Source: iStock

These workers are also in the leisure and hospitality industry, with 3 out of 5 of all workers earning below the federal minimum wage level.


The Purpose of Minimum Wage

“If you leave it to the employer, they can raise wages and they can lower them, as long as it’s not below the minimum wage law,” Yannet Lathrop, a senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project said to CNN.

A person holding many American dollar bills.

Source: Jp Valery/Unsplash

As wage gains slowly help some, there are still many Americans who are fighting for something to happen to help make life in an expensive and inflated economy bearable.


The Legal Pay Floor Isn’t Changing

The legal pay floor in the US hasn’t changed in over a decade, which is the longest period without a countrywide increase since the federal minimum wage was established in 1938.

Photograph of an American flag waving in front of the US Congress building

Source: Adobe Stock

Adjusting for inflation, workers paid the legal hourly minimum in the 1960s and ’70s were paid more compared to today.


The Growing Gap In Politics Is Hindering Rising Wages

One of the reasons behind this lack of change in the federal minimum wage is the growing gap in American politics.

A man looks extremely stressed while he holds his head in his hands

Source: Freepik

Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on ways to help Americans find a comfortable livable wage, with each party shutting down proposed bills to increase wages.


The Real Minimum Wage in the US

For many workers, there is just too much competition out there to pay a worker in the US $7.24 an hour. Now, the real minimum wage is at least $17 an hour.

A close-up of many American one hundred dollar bills.

Source: Giorgio Trovato/Unsplash

A Congressional Budget Office study of the 2021 bill found that raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2027 would lift millions out of poverty.


Workers Are Uniting

While states and cities are setting new minimum wages for their communities, workers are taking matters into their own hands by unionizing.

Fast-food workers on strike for $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2016.

Source: Fibonacci Blue/Wikimedia Commons

These unions often fight to secure higher wages from their employers. If these wage demands and other requests are not met, the unionized workers go on strike.


The Fight For Better Wages

In 2023, the US witnessed the Summer of Strikes. From auto workers to hotel workers, and those in the entertainment industry, workers everywhere united to fight for a better work environment that would improve their quality of life.

Photograph of several members of the UAW on strike

Source: @UAW International Union

The largest employers in the US, like Amazon, Walmart, and Costco, have all begun to pay their workers a minimum wage of $15 or higher.


The Perks of Higher Minimum Wages

“Prices have been so much higher than operating costs over the last decade that these companies could just absorb higher operating costs,” Roosevelt Institute labor expert Alí Bustamante, a co-author of the analysis, told CBS MoneyWatch.

A man holding out American dollar bills in his hand.

Source: Lukas/Unsplash

“This is about raising the floor and making sure that $20 being the new minimum wage puts workers on a better economic footing to cover their household needs.”


California Fast Food Workers Earn More 

While King County residents are earning the highest minimum wage in the US, California fast-food workers are also earning enough to support themselves in one of the most expensive states in the nation.

A woman wears a black shirt, white apron, and black visor while making a sandwich at a fast food restaurant. Two other workers stand beside her

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Fast food workers at chains with more than 60 locations across the country now earn $20 an hour.