Island County commissioners set a $20 an hour minimum wage for their employees this week.
The three elected commissioners were spurred to consider increasing salaries of the county’s lowest-paid staff members last fall after noticing that fast-food restaurants on Whidbey Island were advertising wages higher than what some county employees earned.
The commissioners decided that $20 an hour was a good baseline given the cost of living in the county and instructed Human Resources Director Catherine Reid to approach the unions about the proposal.
“We have high expectations of our employees and, at some point, you simply can’t look them in the eye when you know that they are making less money per hour as a paralegal than they would making your bean burrito at Taco Bell,” Commissioner Jill Johnson said in an interview.
“Nothing against Taco Bell,” she added, “but the county doesn’t really offer entry-level positions and we need to acknowledge that reality in the wages we pay.”
Commissioner Janet St. Clair said during a meeting last month that employees such as building inspectors have crucial jobs but their wages may not reflect that.
“We certainly want to make sure we are compensating them for the level of responsibility,” she said.
Commissioner Melanie Bacon said every job in the county is a career for that person and they deserve to earn a living wage, though she acknowledged that one person may not be able to support a family on $20 an hour.
This week, Reid told the commissioners that she met with the representative of the unions and they were pleased with the proposal.
The change begins right away. A total of 35 people in the county will see their wages increase, some of whom made as low as around $17 an hour. The increase will cost the county $75,000 a year.
Reid explained in an interview that staff members earning below $20 an hour included paralegals in the prosecutor’s office, employees in the county clerk’s office and others. She said the county is going to conduct an analysis of the lower-paid skilled workers to see if their wages should be increased additionally.
Johnson emphasized during the meeting that it was important for employees to know that the increase was the board’s idea and didn’t come from the unions.