Ignore the Fearmongering
Seattle's Coming $15-Minimum-Wage Ordinance Will Not Be the Small-Business Killer Some Fear
As popular support for a $15 minimum wage continues to grow, Seattle's small-business community has grown ever more fearful.
In an open letter to Mayor Ed Murray and the task force he's assembled to study the minimum-wage issue, the Broadway Business Owners Association recently declared that it "unanimously opposes a $15 minimum wage," asserting that "a 60% increase in employee wages would create an extreme hardship," forcing the closure of some small family-owned businesses.
It is a fear that restaurateur Dave Meinert—who insists he supports raising the minimum wage—was quick to repeat. Sitting in the bar at Capitol Hill's Lost Lake Cafe, which he owns, Meinert counted up his fixed costs and thin margins before declaring: "If I had to go to $15 across the board tomorrow, I'd close."
But it is unlikely to come to that, for a number of reasons.
First, Meinert was equally quick to walk back from his suicide note, emphasizing that he'd try raising prices, cutting hours, and other adjustments before shuttering Lost Lake's doors. (Meinert is also an owner of the 5 Point, Big Mario's, and the Comet.) Even in a $15 minimum wage Seattle, demand for bars, restaurants, and retail wouldn't disappear, and some enterprising business owners would figure out a way to profitably meet it.
Second, the immediate across-the-board jump to $15 that many small businesses fear is not likely to happen. "We know we're not going to get everything," says Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant about coming negotiations over a minimum-wage ordinance. "But the way you win battles is to bargain hard, win everything you can, and then fight another day." Some have criticized Sawant's 15Now.org campaign as divisive and inflexible, but those aren't the words of somebody who is unwilling to compromise.
So what might Seattle's minimum-wage ordinance look like? SEIU Healthcare 775NW president David Rolf, who cochairs the mayor's task force, expects a "variable rate phase-in" to be considered, in which different industries or businesses of different sizes might hit $15 at different times—for example, fast-food restaurants might see an immediate jump to $15, while restaurants like Lost Lake might phase it in over a number of years. There may also be exemptions for small businesses (SeaTac's minimum wage exempts businesses with fewer than 10 hourly employees) and for nonprofits. Meinert, who is a member of the task force, argues for Seattle's minimum wage to consider "total compensation"—a formula based on wages, tips, and benefits.
"It's super complicated," says council member Sally Clark, who chairs the council committee considering an ordinance. She expects the council to pass a "nuanced" measure that considers the needs of small businesses.
But one thing that appears to be set in stone is the number. "Fifteen dollars is incredibly popular," says Rolf. So it's not as much a question of if we get to $15 but how—and which businesses and what time frame. "A conversation about how to get to $15 is incredibly fruitful, resistance to $15 is not," warns Rolf. But that, echoes Meinert, is a conversation that he is happy to have: "It's not the number so much as how we get there."
So don't expect Lost Lake—or other small businesses—to be shutting their doors when a wage hike passes.