JW Boswell works at a downtown restaurant. This piece is part of a series of minimum wage op-eds from activists, business owners, low-wage workers, and experts. If you have an editorial you'd like to submit, send it here.
On an unusually warm November afternoon in New Jersey, a snotty-nosed 18-year-old boy walked into a nice restaurant.
He was intimidated by the decor, the stemware on the tables, and the hostess who glared down at him through expensive glasses.
"Can I help you?" she asked as she raised an eyebrow.
"Ah, I see you're hiring busers," said the boy.
"Can you work the day shift?" asked the hostess.
He nodded. "I don't start college for another half a year, and I just graduated high school, so yes, I can."
And thus began his journey. Hired at $5 an hour plus a share of tips, this half-black kid from a dirt-poor family became a buser at a high-end restaurant. A year later, the general manager, a stern, cold woman who reminded him of the Dark Lord Sauron, noticed how hard he worked and offered him a promotion to bartender's assistant. After deciding that it wasn't a trick to make him give up his immortal soul, he agreed. A year after that, he was promoted to server. The general manager, for reasons even the 20-year-old boy couldn't understand, taught him about wine, a mysterious beverage that he knew next to nothing about.
Finally, the boy moved to Seattle after not quite finishing college and started working at a fine-dining restaurant there. He was given a golden opportunity by his new employer: a chance to have his level 1 sommelier class paid for. After studying hard, he passed, and the half-black boy from the ghetto found himself working a number of his shifts in a suit and tie, pouring expensive bottles of Red Mountain Syrah and Barolo Riserva as a floor manager at a downtown restaurant, all while on his way to climbing further up the sommelier ladder.
If you haven't guessed, that boy is me. Everything I'll ever be professionally has its origins in the opportunities given to me by a sub-minimum wage (plus tips) job. If the minimum wage goes up to $15 an hour, you can be guaranteed restaurants will no longer hire people with no experience, and that door of opportunity that was opened for me will be shut on the next snotty-nosed 18-year-old looking for a chance.
The fact is, Washington State is one of 13 states with the highest youth unemployment rates in America, according to Business Insider in 2011. This is no doubt due to our already high state minimum wage, which makes it riskier for employers to take on younger and less experienced workers.
And then there is the much-discussed notion of a tip credit. As someone who has worked for tips for more than a decade, let me show you some quick math: A server works a six-hour shift (typical server shift) and has a total of 20 customers on a slow night at a low-end restaurant. Each guest pays a $20 average price and tips 18 percent. That's $72 in tips. After the server "tips out" 15 percent to the buser, hostess, and bartender, he's left with $61.20. Plus $9.32 an hour for six hours, which is $55.92; added to his tips, that is $117.12. In other words, a server at a low-end restaurant on a slow night makes about $19.50 an hour.
That's the reality of bartending and serving in American cities. The money is damn good. If the minimum wage goes up to $15 an hour, servers will make less tips as guests scoff at the notion of tipping someone who is making almost as much as they are, and servers will suffer, including me on the days I wait tables.
And then there is the racial factor in all of this. As we know, thanks to our failing schools, African Americans have on average lower skills than whites. The only hope for many people of color like myself is to get an entry-level job and work our way up. If the minimum wage goes up to $15 an hour, that door of opportunity will close on a disproportionate number of people of color as they are turned away in favor of more skilled whites.
And finally, this distracts from the real issue: Why are adults trapped in entry-level jobs? Instead of paying them more to work jobs beneath them, why not help them get into better jobs? If Colorado is any indicator, this state is about to make a lot of money on legal cannabis sales. Why not levy that tax money into adult workforce training and child care, so workers stuck at the bottom have a chance to improve themselves as opposed to making more flipping burgers?
Ultimately this is about this city, not me. My destiny is set. This brown man from a poor Jersey family will pursue his destiny and someday become a master sommelier, even if it means he has to move to a different city. If the 15 Now plan goes into effect, I believe the Seattle restaurant scene will suffer, and Bellevue, with lower prices as a result of lower labor costs, will thrive. Many workers like me are against 15 Now, they just don't have a group to back them. That's why I was a founding member of Sustainable Wages, a group of workers, business owners, and activists against 15 Now. We just got off the ground a couple weeks ago. Find out more about us at sustainablewages.org.