Last month, I wrote about a handful of local restaurants and shops that were tacking on small living wage surcharges to their customers' bills. Business owners told me that these 2 percent to 5 percent fees were being used to help compensate for costs associated with increasing their employees' pay to meet Seattle's $15 minimum wage law. Although the fees are perfectly legal, representatives with workers' rights group Working Washington were convinced that the surcharges were politically motivated.
In a blog post published today, Working Washington pushed that point further, showing that fondue chain The Melting Pot, which charges customers a 3 percent living wage fee, donated money to an anti-$15 minimum wage group in 2014.
Records from the City of Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission show that Pacific NW Fondue LLC donated $500 to Forward Seattle, a campaign to repeal the $15 minimum wage, which passed in 2013. The LLC is governed by Lane Scelzi, who owns the Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue locations of The Melting Pot and wine bar Sip.
In a letter distributed at local Melting Pot locations, Scelzi explained that higher costs related to the new minimum wage forced his hand. His letter also insists that "this is not a political statement, this is just us being honest and transparent with you about the impact that these initiatives are having on our restaurants."
Working Washington spokesperson Sage Wilson called bullshit on Scelzi's claim that the surcharge isn't political.
"I think this is one of those cases where somebody insisting this [surcharge] isn’t a political message ends up demonstrating the extent to which it is," he said.
For Scelzi to call out this 3 percent fee is to say, "'This is not my fault and I didn't want to do it.' That seems to be the message implicit there," Wilson said.
When reached for comment, Scelzi downplayed the role of the minimum wage in the surcharge. He added that the company has for 20 years offered benefits, including medical, dental, vision, paid time off and vacation. Scelzi's grievance with the law is that Washington State doesn't consider tips part of employees' wages, as many other states do, he said.
And those costs, in addition to the businesses' rents, have gone up every year, he said.
A much more logical approach than a small surcharge, Wilson said, would be raising menu prices by 3 percent or implementing an automatic 20 percent surcharge on customers' bills in lieu of tipping. As I wrote in March:
Some Seattle restaurateurs, such as Renee Erickson, have switched to this system. The 20 percent flat fee, said Wilson, is "clearly about changing the model in the restaurant industry... [and] changing the way compensation works for our lowest-paid workers in our city and state."
"My stance on that is that I’m all for keeping tips and gratuity for staff that does the job," Scelzi said. "That’s why we didn’t go that route."
"Our whole goal was to be very transparent about this cost and not keep hiding it in the food costs and wine costs," he said. "We just wanted to be more honest with our guests. Our guests are appreciative that we are transparent about this."