WASHINGTON – A day after Wal-Mart announced it would end projects to build three of its stores in the District if the D.C. Council passed a new law that would increase the minimum wage for large retailer’s hourly workers, one councilmember is calling Wal-Mart’s bluff.
D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, spoke with WTOP Wednesday morning and said in previous meetings, representatives from Wal-Mart and the District were both enthusiastic about the retailer’s promise in the city.
“I believe this will get resolved, Wal-Mart will continue with its stores and people in the District will get higher wages,” said Evans, who pointed out that Wal-Mart sees added value in expanding to urban areas like D.C. Evans is running for D.C. mayor in 2014.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, however, tells WTOP he doesn’t think Wal-Mart is bluffing, after meeting with representatives Tuesday.
“I was convinced they were quite serious,” Gray said. “They made it very clear that if this bill passes they don’t intend to build the other three stores, and they may not go forward with the three that are already under construction.”
In an op-ed piece published by The Washington Post Tuesday, the retailer says it would halt projects at Skyland, Capitol Gateway and New York Avenue. Wal-Mart sent WTOP a copy of the op-ed in response to a request to confirm the retailer’s plans to scale back its D.C. presence.
The D.C. Council is set to vote on the living wage bill Wednesday. The final vote of approval would send the bill to Gray.
Gray says in a statement that “the cancellation of three planned stores will surely set us back.” He’s asking the council to consider whether the bill would promote economic development.
He said Wednesday that he hasn’t made up his mind yet on whether he may exercise his veto power, should the council pass the bill.
“We worked very hard to bring retail to the District of Columbia. We don’t want to have a chilling effect on people who potentially want to relocate to the District of Columbia,” he said.
The bill would require large retailers to pay employees at least $12.50 per hour, more than the District’s $8.25 per hour minimum wage. The bill would apply to retailers occupying store space of 75,000 square feet or more but would exclude stores with collective bargaining agreements, such as Giant and Safeway.
Wal-Mart says passage of the bill also would jeopardize three other D.C. stores currently under construction.
The higher wages are necessary as the cost of living in the District increases, Evans said.
“It has become very difficult, as you know, to live in the District of Columbia. We are prospering beyond what any other city in America is doing and, as a result, it is expensive to live here. So many people who are working, particularly in the retail industry, are having a hard time,” Evans said.
“And so it’s interesting because Wal-Mart and some of the other stores who would be affected by this already pay wages above the minimum wage, and so I’m not sure that the concerns that are being raised about having to pay a higher wage are actually that valid.”
Wal-Mart said in the op-ed piece that the passage of the law would “inject unforeseen costs into the equation that will create an uneven playing field and challenge the fiscal health of our planned D.C. stores.”
The retailer plans to continue negotiating with the council but urged Gray to veto the legislation saying “it runs counter to every economic development platform his administration has identified as a priority for Washington, D.C.”
Many people took to the WTOP Facebook page Wednesday to offer their opinions about Wal-Mart and the living wage.
Kathleen Spaine said Wal-Mart should pay a living wage.
“12.50 an hour seems to be a bear minimum in the DC area. They can afford to pay the 12.50 request,” she wrote on Facebook.
James Waldron Hertsch said Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers should not have to adhere to the living wage.
“By requiring that Wal-Mart pay a �living wage’ but not requiring that local busisnesses do so, or that businesses with collective bargaining agreements pay a living wage, the DC Council sets up those businesses with an unfair competitive advantage over Wal-Mart,” he posted on WTOP’s Facebook page.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter.