Newly released emails sent between researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the staff of Mayor Ed Murray shed more light on how the two outfits coordinated the release and press coverage of a study that found Seattle’s minimum wage increase has bumped restaurant workers’ pay without costing jobs—a study trumpeted as a strong endorsement of one of the mayor’s signature policy accomplishments.
The emails, obtained by Seattle Weekly through a public disclosure request, show the lead author of the paper, Michael Reich, stayed in close touch with mayoral staff, as well as a think tank that advocates for a $15 minimum wage nationwide and a New York public relations agency, to craft the messaging and timing of the study’s release.
The study was pushed out on June 20, the third anniversary of the minimum wage law’s passage and just a week before a more negative study out of the University of Washington was published—a study Reich and the mayor’s office were well aware of. In order to have the study prepared in time for a press event held by Murray to celebrate the anniversary, Reich apparently worked long hours.
“The Seattle Mayor’s office would like to release the report tomorrow,” Reich wrote in an email on June 19. “I am still making some last-minute changes to the report itself … I’ve been working morning to evening every one of the past seven days to complete this. The timetable moved up over the weekend.”
The report, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that restaurant workers in Seattle were getting paid more, while the effect on the number of restaurant jobs was “not statistically distinguishable from zero.”
Notably, none of the emails provided to Seattle Weekly suggest that Reich, a respected economist in the wage field, manipulated data or his findings in order to make the minimum wage law look successful. Rather, the emails speak to how the findings of the report were communicated to the public—with an eye toward making the biggest splash possible with a national audience that’s been watching Seattle to see how its wage experiment is going.
To make sure the study got lots of play in the media, a communications specialist with the New York City-based firm BerlinRosen was enlisted to find a reporter to give an exclusive look at the study before it was published. The scoop ended up going to Gene Johnson, a Seattle-based reporter for the Associated Press. Johnson’ story hit the wire on Tuesday, June 20.
Those in the email chain were pleased with the coverage.
“Full Associated Press story is up, and it’s strong. Running in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and dozens of other outlets,” Rob Duffey, with BerlinRosen, wrote to Reich, Murray senior policy advisor Carlo Caldirola-Davis, Murray spokesman William Lemke, and a Berkeley communications specialist.
Also included in many of the emails was a representative with the National Employment Law Project, which paid for the BerlinRosen PR work. NELP advocates for minimum wage increases across the country.
Locally, Reich’s report was trumpeted by Murray. On June 20, Murray visited Broadcast Coffee, Central Co-Op, and Molly Moon’s on Capitol Hill to celebrate the wage law’s anniversary. “A study released today by the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at University of California Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance has raised wages for low-paid workers, without any negative impacts on employment,” the mayor’s office said in a press release about the event.
Reich was cognizant of Murray’s schedule, saying in one email to mayoral staff that he hoped he’d prepared his material “in time for your Tuesday event.”
The Berkeley report came out a week before a more critical study of the minimum wage law was published by researchers at the University of Washington. That study, which used payroll data to track workers making less than $19 an hour and working at firms with only one location, found that workers were experiencing cuts to their hours that outstripped the money they gained through the higher minimum wage. Just like the Berkeley study, the UW study also made headlines across the country.
Reich had been provided an early draft of the UW study, and knew it was soon to be published when he released his paper. However, he was cautioned by Murray’s staff not to make mention of the UW study in a media release he prepared.
“Tomorrow’s release will just highlight your study, correct (ie leave the critique of the UW study until later)? … Don’t want your positive news to serve as a teaser for the UW study,” Caldirola-Davis, the senior advisor to Murray, wrote to Reich on June 19. The release ended up making no mention of the UW study, though Reich was highly critical of the UW paper once it did come out.
Prior to the emails being released, it was no secret the mayor’s office was working with Reich. Reich’s paper, which was co-authored by Sylvia Allegretto and Anna Godoey, originally stated on its front page that it had been “prepared at the request of the Office of the Mayor of Seattle.” Strangely, that language has been removed from the online version of the report.
Seattle Weekly has requests for comment into Michael Reich and the mayor’s office.