Since the unanimous City Council vote on Monday to pass a $275 per employee head tax, businesses have cried foul and some are already talking about repealing the ordinance. Curious, I ventured down to South Lake Union to see how employees of Amazon, the business that had the biggest influence over the tax rate, feel about the City Council's decision.
It was a beautiful day. The sun glinted off skyscrapers, bean bags were scattered across the lawn next to the Bezos Balls, and Amazon workers migrated outdoors where they buried their noses in their screens in the harsh light of day rather than under fluorescent lights.
They walked past me in droves, marked by little blue badges. Some vaped outside the Amazon Go store, some vaped outside Evergreens Salad, some vaped as they listened to the crooning of a white man playing an acoustic rendition of “Purple Rain” by Prince. This seemed like a "prime" time to ask some questions and maybe make some new friends.
“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” I approached a group of males wearing the signature blue badge. They didn’t look too much older than me and were walking swiftly.
The one at the head of the pack whipped his head around and offered a biting “No.”
Okay. No new friends, then.
I asked people waiting at the crosswalk what they thought about the head tax.
“I’ve never heard of that," another blue-badge-wearer said. His partner shook his head quickly back and forth. Nope, he hadn’t heard of it either.
There’s a free banana stand in between two of the skyscrapers off 6th and Lenora. They just hand out bananas. Maybe they would also hand out some opinions on the head tax.
“Oh, you should ask our PR department,” the girl working at the stand said. “The URL is amazon dot com slash…”
She told me the whole URL. Two other people told me to contact PR instead of talking to them.
“They tell you not to do this when you start,” said one of the only people who agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity. He works as a software engineer at Amazon. Let’s call him Alex.
“I’m just—” he hesitated. “I don’t think I’d get in that much trouble. But they tell you not to speak to other people [as if you are] representing Amazon. They want to have everything through a PR lens.”
Was that why no one was coming forward with their opinion?
“Absolutely,” Alex responded. “They drill that into you at orientation. Like they say don’t post on Facebook. Another big thing they say is it’s fine to have your own views but don’t portray your views as Amazon’s. So, I’m fine there.”
We were sat at a table in Denny Park. Did that make him my Amazon Deepthroat? I asked. He laughed and shrugged. Not technically a no. Then, he spoke candidly about the tax.
Alex is young, probably in his early 20s. He’s been working at Amazon for just over a year. He does not support the head tax. Neither do a lot of the people he works with.
“I think that while the tax is well intentioned,” Alex said, “it isn’t a particularly effective measure to accomplish the goal behind it.”
Alex has lived in Seattle all of his life. He thinks the homelessness problem needs solving but that this tax is going about it the wrong way.
“Basically,” Alex began, “it seems to me like establishing a flat head tax based on worker count is not a great idea. If you would put a tax on a percentage of what you were paying workers that would work more effectively I think.” (I did not mention to Alex that the City Council removed a provision in the original proposal that would've substituted a payroll tax for the head tax beginning in 2021.)
Alex surmises that the head tax won’t impact tech jobs like his. Instead, it will be bad for lower-wage employees like warehouse workers.
“Paying someone for a lower-wage job will become a much bigger cost,” Alex said. “It won’t discourage the tech boom at all and adds to problems of rising housing costs when incentivizing a smaller higher paid workforce.”
Andy, another Amazon worker who only gave me his first name, disagrees with the head tax for similar reasons.
I caught him mid-smoke break. He was middle-aged and wore a black polo and jeans. He lives in Sammamish.
“It’s creating a disincentive for business,” Andy said, taking a drag. “It’s going to be bad in the long term. Companies won’t wait around. They’ll be looking for an exit strategy.”
Brandon, a subcontractor for a general contracting company working for Amazon, was walking with a construction worker when I asked about them about head tax. They smiled but said no, they don’t support it.
“I personally think it’s a bad idea,” Brandon said. “I see both sides, but to me the city is targeting companies that are providing jobs. It’s killing its golden goose.”
Some things I didn't hear from any Amazonians: King County had 11,643 homeless people in 2017, the region needs 14,000 more units of affordable housing, and the head tax only gets us to about a third of what we need to pay for solutions to the problem.