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Bellingham minimum wage could see pick-me-up; Residents, businesses conflicted

Initiative No. 1 would boost minimum wage $2 over the next two years

From left to right: Jace Cotton, Anderson Dang and Maya Engel tabling at Red Square at Western Washington University on Oct. 30, 2023 in Bellingham, Wash. Students can register to vote at these tables and learn more about what’s on the ballot. // Photo by Alex Hodson

With the cost of living and inflation being a tremendous burden for many Bellingham residents, Community First Whatcom is bringing forth a ballot initiative to raise the city’s minimum wage. CFW is a group that pushes initiatives that consider people first when it comes to the local economy.

While many are excited to see the increase, some business owners are concerned about what this means for their costs. 

If passed, Initiative 1 would raise Bellingham’s minimum wage to $2 over the state minimum wage of $15.74 by 2025. City Council At-Large candidate Jace Cotton, a proponent of Initiative No. 1, is confident in the benefits the increase would provide.

“The empirical studies are quite clear that there are no significant impacts to employment levels, local prices or business failure rates,” Cotton said. “So we can be really confident that this is going to be an overwhelming net win for our local economy and for workers who are struggling to afford our rising cost of living.”

Cotton has seen support from the community overall and is hoping to repeat the 2016 vote to raise the minimum wage statewide.

“There are certainly a few voices that have emerged in opposition to this initiative,” Cotton said. Some of these come from the city’s business owners and economists. 

Concerns about unemployment are among the critiques of Initiative No. 1, as well as an increased cost of goods and services.

“If somebody says ‘Let’s raise the minimum wage’ in a particular area well above what it currently is, you’re going to have some serious impact,” said Hart Hodges, professor of economics at Western Washington University. 

Hodges noted that Initiative No. 1 is bound to city limits, meaning businesses could be driven away by lack of affordability in Bellingham. 

“If I’m running a business and my rent’s coming due and I’m having to pay labor noticeably more, why wouldn’t I go to Ferndale?” Hodges said. “Why wouldn’t I just cut back on labor and do a lot more online?”

Some business owners, like Doug Robertson, owner of the Bellingham Training and Tennis Club, are uneasy about the future of hourly wages in general.

“If you were to see a base increase, then everyone within a close area that’s an hourly rate person, would also expect — and most businesses would give — a raise,” Robertson said. He added that an increased costs for the company means more money has to be coming in, equating to a rise in cost.

“Businesses don’t like raising prices because, depending on the elasticity of your demand, you’re going to lose customers,” Robertson said. “You’d see an increase in inflation in the Bellingham area.”

If this initiative is passed, Robertson would plan to update the membership price at his club to fit the new minimum wage. 

“We will announce to all of our members that we are increasing all of our prices because of this initiative,” Robertson said. “We are increasing not for more profit, but to pay our staff more.”

According to Western’s Student Employment Center, the lowest wage a student employee at Western can make is $16.28, which will be Washington state’s minimum wage at the start of 2024. 

If Initiative No. 1 is passed, the Bellingham minimum wage would be $1 more than the state minimum wage by May 2024 and $2 more by 2025, according to the official initiative language.

Initiative No. 1 will have a direct effect on Western students and hourly workers. Cotton encourages students and hourly workers to vote in the upcoming election. 

Cotton and members of CFW table at Western’s Red Square, helping students register to vote in Whatcom County and stay informed through Tables typically include pamphlets featuring the language of initiatives as well as forms to update student addresses. 

“For Western students in particular, we see pretty high voting rates, 85% in presidential elections,” Cotton said. “But many students just aren’t voting locally, which means that students’ priorities and perspectives are not always well-represented in local elections.” 

Cotton encourages people to register to vote locally in order to get a say in their local policies. Ballots are due Nov. 7 by 8 p.m. at any Whatcom ballot dropbox location.

Alex Hodson

Alex Hodson (he/him) is a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. He is a second-year pre-major in journalism. When not working on The Front, he likes to play pickleball, watch movies, drink coffee and sing in Western's Concert Choir. You can reach him at

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