Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant, on a panel with politicians from around the country.
  • The Stranger
  • Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant, on a panel with politicians from around the country.
Yesterday's Income Inequality Symposium, which brought a crush of people to a building on Seattle University's campus, was probably the most substantive discussion of the minimum wage I've seen so far. An all-day event of panels and speeches and reports, there was new information, new people to watch, new dimensions of the issue to consider.

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After opening remarks, including a speech from Nick Hanauer—read the editorial he cowrote in this week's paper for his side of things—they got down to business, which included discussions of more complicated parts of the income inequality picture. Like how burdensome our state's regressive tax system is on the poor, and that it must also be revamped if we truly want to address inequality. Or how, as Columbia University's Dorian Warren put it, "Income and wealth inequalities translate to political inequalities," trapping people in a cycle of poverty that gets more and more entrenched as it's codified into policy—by people who have all the money and all the political power. Warren wasn't afraid to drop the word "oligarchy," nor to point out that the same arguments used a century ago to try and beat back regulations on child labor are now being trotted out to try and beat back raises in the minimum wage.

A panel of low-income workers—a hotel worker making just over $15, a McDonald's server who says she takes home about $1,100 a month, and a shelter counselor at Downtown Emergency Service Center—talked about their experiences living on their wages. The DESC counselor, Jesse Inman, said he was barely able to afford to stay in Seattle and was watching people who work for nonprofits like his leave the city for cheaper living options in droves. Living somewhere else and logging a long commute in to work with needy people in the city center "starts to create a disconnect between people and the city they serve," he said. Martina Phelps, the McDonald's worker, said she has to split a place in Skyway with multiple roommates and then commute in to the city and could never manage rent and bills on her paychecks alone.

And then there was data on data on data. (But none of this Data, sadly.)

A dorm room on campus with a $15 Now sign.
  • The Stranger
  • A dorm room on campus with a $15 Now sign.
A real living wage for a single person in King County? It would be about $17.55 an hour, said Jill Reese of the Alliance for a Just Society. They calculated that based on what it costs to afford basics like rent and food and transportation, plus a little bit of savings, without using public assistance—but that doesn't include any student debt or other debt, or any medical bills. $15 is just a start.

UW researchers who released this report on their findings this week presented Seattle-specific data. Among the interesting finds? Around a third of Seattle's residents make less than $15 an hour, as do around 100,000 people working in Seattle. On the topic of large vs. small businesses, check this out: While 75 percent of the city's business establishments have fewer than 10 employees, only 12 percent of the city's employees work in them. Meaning if you set a wage raise for larger businesses, you'd be affecting 88 percent of the city's workforce.

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UC Berkeley researchers, whose report (PDF here) also came out this week, talked about the effects of municipal minimum wage raises in other regions—and got in a tiff with a local restaurateur. When Tamara Murphy, who owns Terra Plata and Elliott Bay Cafe, got up to ask a question, she started by talking about a chef friend in San Francisco who says the city's getting just too expensive to run a restaurant in. Economist Michael Reich cut her off and shut her down, saying that while they hear anecdotal stories of the loss of restaurants in San Francisco all the time, people's personal anecdotes just don't fit the data, which says that restaurants are growing in the city. It's a kind of interaction that'll be repeated over and over in this debate—personal experience versus data.

Toward the end of the afternoon, activist and author Saru Jayaraman stole the show talking about tip credits. At a post-lunch panel where people were snagging coffee after coffee just to stay awake, Jayaraman suddenly whipped the room into a frenzy of "YEAH!"s and applause. Having a lower wage for tipped workers, she argued, is just a political construct dreamed up by the National Restaurant Association and lamely supported by the federal government as an acceptable compromise. But because 70 percent of tipped workers in the country and 60 percent of tipped workers in Seattle are women, a tip credit becomes a women's issue, she said. And when women rely on tips for their wages, they often face the ugly question of how much sexual harassment they should tolerate just to make ends meet. Jayaraman called tipping a "draconian, sexist system," and when video of her talk goes up online, we'll get a copy on Slog. "Tips are not wages," she told the room. "When consumers pay tips, they don't think they're paying a wage. They're not." It was an impassioned speech about what may well be the—hardyhar!—tipping point of Seattle's minimum-wage discussion. And it's sure to piss off restaurant owners, who continue to heavily advocate for some sort of total compensation formula that would count tips toward their employees' wages.

I live-tweeted a lot of the symposium, so if you'd like to go read the whole thing in snippets, check it out here.

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