On Thursday afternoon, a crowd of divided workers and lobbyists filled the Seattle City Council’s Governance, Accountability, and Economic Development committee meeting to discuss Chair Sara Nelson’s extreme rollback of a recently instituted minimum wage for gig delivery workers known as “Pay Up."

Nelson told her council colleagues that the “last thing” she wanted to do was spark such a heated debate. She even told a constituent in an email that she would “repeal the legislation outright” if it were up to her alone. But by at best ignoring and at worst antagonizing those who insist the minimum wage benefits them, Nelson has brought labor’s wrath upon her. And in the Thursday meeting, as workers and labor groups testified against the rollback, Nelson’s confidence appeared shaken. 

During discussion, Nelson tried to distance herself from her bill. She said that it's not just her idea but the idea of the gig companies and of Drive Forward, an Uber-backed lobby group she pretends represents the majority of workers. She acknowledged that the opposition will “say what they want” about Drive Forward, but she’s saying it’s technically an advocacy group, okay? 

She couldn’t play it cool, though—Nelson defended the bill as if it were her first-born. She dominated the meeting, launching into monologues that shaded labor organizers, interrupting public commenters who criticized her, seeming to look for support from nonpartisan staff, and calling out staff for raising hypothetical concerns.

Her apparent uneasiness in the meeting revealed the fragility of the council president, who has so quickly built a tyrannical reputation for herself. So far, her committee colleagues have not levied strong criticisms or very specific support of her bill. As one public commenter said, this is their opportunity to prove they are more than Nelson disciples, but we'll see. 

This Is Your Bill, Nelson

Nelson did not include workers in the creation of her so-called “reform,” and it shows. 

If none of her colleagues stand up to her, the law would cut delivery-worker pay by about 24%. That would make for a wage of about $19 per hour during the workers’ small window of “engaged time,” time when they’re biking or driving on a call, not waiting for one. It would also cut the per-mile pay to half the IRS rate of reimbursement and eliminate the $5 per order minimum. Some order transparency measures and protections for order cancellations would be eliminated, too. 

Her law undermines enforcement by eliminating penalties on companies who fail to pay workers, denying them the right to sue companies for breaking the law and cutting provisions that protect workers against retaliation. Not sure how those measures help struggling couriers, but pop off!

Nelson also took aim at the Office of Labor Standards (OLS) in her law by limiting the information the office can request from gig companies, barring the agency from imposing “additional requirements” of any kind on the gig companies, and delaying enforcement action by 30 days. The law amounts to “virtual immunity” for gig companies, Washington State Association for Justice Government Affairs Director Larry Shannon said during public comment. 

Missed a Spot!

With all that shit Nelson’s law would do, she still managed to miss the point. Gig workers currently see a lower volume of jobs because gig companies slapped retaliatory fees onto orders. Then the companies ran a huge marketing campaign to blame the mark-ups on the greedy, greedy gig workers for wanting a minimum wage.

Opponents often use the example of a $35 burrito to communicate the egregiously high new prices. But Working Washington, a labor group that helped craft Pay Up, noted in a press release that “if burritos feel expensive, it’s not because workers are getting rich—they’re expensive because DoorDash is getting rich.”

Based on an independent analysis from the Fair Work Center, Working Washington estimated that–before tax and tip–“no more than” $22.40 of a typical $35 order would go to the restaurant, about $6.40 would go to the worker, and DoorDash would keep $5.75. DoorDash could eliminate the new $5 fee and still maintain a margin over 30%, according to the analysis.

Despite all the uproar about fees, Nelson’s law does not require, incentivize, or even just ask the companies nicely to repeal them. She seems to believe companies will do that voluntarily, though I haven’t seen a strong promise yet. 

Ideology may be clouding her thinking. In a recent newsletter, Nelson said “no one disputes that the regulatory fee catalyzed the backlash but it’s not our role to question the basis for a business decision nor do we have the authority to prohibit it.”

Working Washington disagreed with Nelson’s analysis. Hannah Sabio-Howell, a spokesperson for Working Washington, said Nelson failed to acknowledge the 15% commission cap the City already passed to protect restaurants from corporate price-gouging on delivery fees. 

“Moving forward a commission cap for customers would be an excellent solution that [Nelson] has completely ignored,” Sabio-Howell said. 

She added: “[Nelson] could be creative and work harder to protect consumers and small restaurants from corporations, if that’s who she’s really worried about.” 

Nelson’s law also does not address another issue that may be contributing to some workers’ financial woes. Bike couriers told The Stranger they believe that the gig companies favor drivers because they can complete orders more quickly. The minimum wage ordinance, which requires companies to pay workers for their time, gives companies even more incentive to send orders to faster car drivers. In addition, Nelson’s law would eliminate transparency requirements that inform workers what they have to pick up and where they have to go. That hurts cyclists because orders may be too large to carry or take them over steep hills. 

When Nelson Let Others Speak

Despite all these complications, Nelson clearly wants to pass the bill as soon as possible. For instance, when Council Member Bob Kettle said in the committee meeting that there were a lot of “moving parts,” a lot of stakeholders, and there was a lot of “homework” to do, Nelson at first said “no,” but then she retreated and said there’s more time to discuss in the next committee. 

Some public commenters believe she’s working quickly in her own financial interest. Earlier this month, Seattle Hospitality Group, one of the state’s largest restaurant companies, bought a controlling stake in Fremont Brewing, which was co-founded by Nelson. Nelson, who in 2022 stepped away from the company she still co-owns, claims she “was not involved in the negotiations over the sale of Fremont Brewing,” according to a statement from a council spokesperson. She’s working with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) to keep everything above board, but it's too early for SEEC to comment substantively. 

Advocates have flagged the deal as a potential conflict of interest because the businesses that Seattle Hospitality Group owns would presumably benefit from a reduction in the minimum wage. 

When public commenter Colin O’Keefe tried to call out Nelson for not recusing herself, she interrupted him and asked him to connect his comment to an agenda item. She doesn’t usually interrupt commenters, except for when frequent public commenter Alex Zimmerman launches into his "Sieg Heil” rants. 

O’Keefe called on the rest of the council to tell Nelson to recuse herself, but no one obliged. In fact, most of the committee members seem pretty chill with her proposal. Council Member Rob Saka said almost verbatim what Nelson said in a previous meeting about having three options: Do nothing, revise, or repeal. Parroting his fearless leader, Saka said that he ruled out the “do nothing” option and wants to pursue a revision and maybe a repeal at a later time. Council Member Maritza Rivera basically just regurgitated some of Nelson's concerns, as did Kettle. 

Council Member Joy Hollingsworth asked a lot of clarifying questions about Nelson’s proposal. She even pointed out a “loophole” that allows companies to count incentives and bonuses toward the minimum wage. Hollingsworth, who got donations and endorsements from labor unions in her recent election, should be fighting at least a little for workers. Her mild skepticism in the meeting could make her a good target for pro-Pay Up advocates to lobby for amendments.