Jess Spear is the organizing director of 15 Now. Below, she argues against total compensation. Over here, Dave Meinert argues in favor of total compensation. They will be responding to each other's arguments Friday, April 4 on Slog.
A $15 an hour minimum wage would lift more than 100,000 workers out of poverty in Seattle, according to a study released two weeks ago. Polling shows 68 percent of Seattle supports raising the minimum to $15 for all workers, no exceptions. Discussion over the proposed $15 minimum wage goes on every day in workplaces around the city and registers regular headlines in local media. With such momentum, most business owners no longer dare to openly oppose it.
Even the notoriously right-wing Washington Restaurant Association (WRA) has changed its tune. The WRA vigorously fought against $15 last year in SeaTac, after opposing Seattle's progressive sick-pay ordinance in 2011. But WRA president and CEO Anthony Anton told the Seattle Times last week he is "encouraged" by Mayor Ed Murray's approach to raising the minimum wage "the right way."
This doesn't reflect a change of heart by the WRA, but a change of tactics. Business has decided that opposing $15 outright will be ineffective. Instead, the WRA and others hope to effectively destroy the minimum wage legislation and ensure few workers receive $15 using a device called "total compensation."
Total compensation attempts to do nothing less than redefine the meaning of an hourly minimum wage. Employers could be allowed to deduct tips, health care, meals on the job, pensions, paid sick leave, bus passes, vacation time, and more from the minimum wage, which is not what happens now. If we allow total compensation into the new minimum wage, many workers who make less than $15 an hour could see no increase in their take-home pay at all.
And how would you enforce it? As Dominic Holden wrote in The Stranger, "Once you factor in retirement or health-care benefits, costs that vary widely from one company to the next, gauging the value of the benefit becomes almost impossible." Given the considerable sleight of hand involved, how could you possibly protect workers from being cheated out of their wages?
Already we have a rampant problem with wage theft, where workers are forced to work off the clock, share tips with employers, or work through mandatory breaks. A 2008 study by the National Employment Law Project found that wage theft from low-wage workers amounts to an average of 15 percent of their paycheck. For a full-time minimum wage worker in Seattle, that amounts to more than $200 stolen each month!
Washington State is one of seven states that does not allow employers to deduct tips from the minimum wage. The WRA has been campaigning for a tip penalty (the WRA calls it a "tip credit") to lower the minimum wage for tipped workers in Washington for years. Now, total compensation would provide a loophole to allow a tip penalty in Seattle, a giant step backward considering that tipped workers nationally are twice as likely to live in poverty as other workers.
When I was a waitress in Virginia, I was paid the federal minimum wage for tipped employees, $2.13 an hour, and my tips were supposed to make up the difference. But my coworkers and I had no idea that was the case. Many days I went home after a four-hour shift with only $10, meaning I was being paid well below the minimum wage. My employer was supposed to make up the difference, but of course this did not happen.
Seattle workers need a real $15 minimum wage. We can't pay for our skyrocketing rent with our health-care plan, and we can't buy food with paid sick leave. We do need benefits, but we also need an end to poverty wages. Allowing this deceptive system of deductions called "total compensation" would effectively gut the minimum wage, leave many workers behind, and set a dangerous precedent for other attacks on our wages and living standards.