Steve Shay
L-R: Joe Torrey, Paige Heggie, Kaite Mark-community organizer, Ronnie Rodriquez- Community organizer & employee for 15NOW campaign, Dorsol Plants, & Chas Redmond. Chas Redmond is running for Seattle City Council.

Mandated $15 Hour Minimum Wage: Some Cheer, Others Sorry

By Steve Shay

Seattle's $15 an hour minimum wage mandate passed nine to zero in City Council June 2, with support from Mayor Murray, and the guidance of the "Income Inequality Advisory Committee." However, the sentiment of Seattle business owners and employees is far from unanimous. It is estimated over 100,000 workers in Seattle are now earn minimum wage and will get a raise. Washington State's minimum wage is $9.32, the nation's highest. The federal minimum wage is $7.25. Nearly 25 states use this rate.

The most ardent supporters of Seattle's $15 mandate, so far the highest of any American city, believe the wage increase timetable is too cumbersome and slow. It begins April 1, 2015, and graduates to $15 over time depending on the size and nature of a business. Teen pay may be lower. Many opposing the increase agree the rate scheme is confusing. But they insist a large wage increase will overburden small businesses while the big boys, like McDonalds, Cosco and Amazon will discover loopholes. For instance, some Seattle-based corporations may move their headquarters just outside city limits.

Seattle's mandate comes on the heals of a similar mandate set by SeaTac. They raised minimum wage to $15 Jan. 1, but limited it to the hospitality industry with over 30 employees and hotels with 100-plus rooms. Some SeaTac businesses with, say 38 employees, have laid off eight workers to avoid the minimum wage hike. Also, some hotels with just over 100 rooms are now converting every room beyond the hundredth to a conference room or storage for the same reason.

SeaTac lawmakers wanted SeaTac Airport employees included. They were the very individuals who sparked the $15 an hour movement. However, the airport is operated by the Port, not the city, and is therefore exempt, for now. This issue is currently being litigated by the Teamsters in court.

Socialist activist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant seized on the $15 an hour movement in her campaign which resonated well with voters and helped her unseat longtime incumbent Richard Conlin by about one percent in last November's heated election. She launched www.15now.org in January to fight for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle.

"Big business is gaining at the expense of small business," Sawant said during a spirited but civil debate at McCaw Hall April 9 hosted by conservative talk radio station AM 770 KTTH. "Nearly half of the people eligible for food stamps who receive them…are hard-working people with low paying jobs…Taxpayers are not subsidizing workers, but subsidizing Walmarts that keep low wages low (forcing employees to subsidize income with food stamps.) "Workers at the bottom are saying they can't live (on $9.32 an hour) and it's their right because they are the ones who make this city run…Overwhelming evidence shows that local businesses gain when consumers around them can spend locally."

KTTH host Ben Shapiro countered that a $15 minimum wage punishes the ma & pa shops, and that this iss flawed, "trickle-up" economics. He said, "If you have only three employees it is more difficult to absorb labor cost increases," adding, "This idea that economic growth will occur at $15 is untrue. New products and services make our economy grow, and make your life better. Bill Gates offers what we need. The new products and services we need are provided by the rich who own big companies."

Also opposed is Rick Forschler with www.sustainablewages.org which counters 15 Now. A former SeaTac City Council member and Boeing IT worker, the SeaTac resident and father of eight spoke to Pike Place Market business owners June 4 who fear they'd have to close shop if obligated to pay employees $15 an hour.

"My concern is that the very small businesses have no voice," he said. "There are about 200 little businesses in Pike Place Market. Some have less than five employees. They're scared to death that they are likely to go out of business. Those jobs will be gone. It's a wonderful landmark and it will be devastating if all those little businesses close.

"I worked at Herfy's Burgers on California Avenue in West Seattle, my first job, in the early '70's and earned about a buck sixty-five an hour," Forschler recalled. "Then I got a second minimum wage job, at Kmart, while attending South Seattle Community College. Did I deserve more? Everyone thinks they deserve more. But a person deserves what they contribute to the business. When someone says a person 'deserves' a $15 wage entry level job, and when you set the wage above what the employer can pay, the person does not get hired. The compensation you get should have nothing to do with what your personal needs are."

Not so, says Burien Council Member and former union organizer, Lauren Berkowitz, who supports a higher minimum wage. "If you live in a capitalistic society, which we do, where people rely on money for necessities like health care, shelter, food and clothing, I believe you need to pay a living wage so that they can afford all those things," said Berkowitz, now working on her degree in the field of public interest labor law at UW. "I see it as a human rights issue. Workers need a voice. Our two neighboring cities (SeaTac and Seattle) raised minimum wage. No one is going to choose to work in Burien for less money when they can drive a couple of miles away for the higher salary. People say it is going to kill businesses. Every time since the first minimum wage in the 1930's that there has been an increase, businesses have freaked out but businesses can and will stay in business. They'll find a way to make it work and will have a better business in the long run."

She said four of the seven on the Burien City Council are against any discussion, including a compromise, to raise minimum wage, and have hijacked all discussion on the matter. She is making efforts to at least have a conversation about it in City Hall.

"People will have more money to spend and so there is more disposable income to spend," she said. "People will be able to afford daycare and going to restaurants."

Anne Francis Kelly, the Executive Director of Green Lake Preschool & Childcare Center, disagrees. The school employees nearly 20 people, both male and female, including teens just out of high school attending college, to seasoned highly-educated and trained childcare professionals over 60. Three classes accommodate 44 children ages one to five, many from Ballard and Phinney Ridge. Over 80 families are on her waiting list. Kelly said she is just speaking for herself only and not officially for the school, and shares some of Forschler's views.

"If you work hard you can get ahead," said Kelly, who drives a 1966 mint green Chevy Impala she restored herself. "I didn't expect the system to support me in any way when I started working. I worked like hell to get where I am, and made good choices."

Most full-time workers earn about $19 an hour already, receive health care, sick and vacation and bonus days off, and free in-house meals. Her part-time teen workers earn $10 to $12 per hour, but also get meals, paid sick leave and vacation and bonus days off. The new mandate does not address exceptions for part-timers.

"I do a lot of in-house training for my teens and help them work around school schedules," she said. "Part of my mission statement is to help young people along. If $15 an hour goes into effect then in fairness to all my employees I'll have to give the same percentage increase to every worker." She said she has done demographic research and customers can't afford more than $16,000 per year tuition, her break-even rate.

"Worst case scenario I won't be able to hire kids for their first job anymore," she said. "It is not cost-effective to hire young people who have no experience who I have to train. Each employee is required to go through extensive background checks, CPR and other training, and get fingerprinted. Higher wages would just add another layer."

"I totally get that, but $30K is frankly not even enough money to live on in a big city," countered 15 Now supporter and community activist Chas Redmond, now running for Seattle City Council representing West Seattle and South Park. "There is an assumption that teens live at home and work minimum wage jobs on their own to acquire 'fun money' if you will. I would argue that is not the case. When my mom was divorced and she didn't make enough to feed three kids I got a minimum wage job as soon as I could start to work, at age 14, 75 cents an hour, to help feed us. I think it's the same now. I worked for a dry cleaning company. I swept the parking lot, unclogged the washing machines, and cleaned the diatomaceous earth filter. It was mostly grunt work, you know, brawn, but unclogging drains took some brains."

To read the ordinance and timetables, Google "Seattle City Council Bill 118098" then scroll down and click "RSS-Council Connection-City of Seattle"

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