Tips are the lifeblood of Capitol Hill’s food+drink economy and a proposed $15 an hour minimum wage has put the customary gratuity in the spotlight. Last Thursday the Capitol Hill Community Council devoted its entire April meeting to what a $15 an hour wage would mean for the Hill’s tipped workforce and the neighborhood at large.
The meeting at the Cal Anderson Park shelter came as Mayor Ed Murray’s “Income Inequality Task Force,” which includes the head of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and local business owner Dave Meinert, is stumbling into its deadline and continues to be bogged down in a fight over how tips should be counted in a potential $15 minimum wage. Meanwhile, a just-released study (PDF) by research and advocacy group Puget Sound Sage suggests that the position voiced by some in the restaurant industry who say their tipped workers are earning more than $15 per hour isn’t a universal truth:
Business owners, particularly high-end restaurantuers, in Seattle are asking Council and the Mayor to establish a two-tiered wage system based on the earnings of a handful of waiters and waitresses that earn above $15 in tips and wages. Puget Sound Sage’s new study highlights the reality of tipped work in Seattle, so that the debate can focus on practical solutions for raising the minimum wage instead of speculation about who tipped workers are and how much they make.
“Our analysis demonstrates that the average tipped worker in Seattle is roughly 32 years old, has at least some level of college education, and earns less than $15 an hour — even if you include tips in their hourly earnings.” Nicole Vallestero Keenan, Senior Research and Policy Analyst, Puget Sound Sage
Six Capitol Hill-centric panelists opened Thursday’s meeting to discuss their views on the minimum wage. Von Trapp’s bartender Bridget Maloney said she was concerned that an immediate $15 an hour minimum wage hike would lead to reduced tips and force layoffs at local independent businesses in a neighborhood where many service industry workers already make over $15 an hour.
“If I went to making (a $15) minimum wage and decreased tips, that would be a huge hit to my income,” she said. “We’re not against a $15 minimum wage, we just want it to be done in a sensible way that protects everybody.”
Maloney said she was a member of a recently formed group called Tips Are Wages, which describes itself as “an independent advocacy group made up of and serving the interests of service industry professionals in the city of Seattle whose primary income is tip-based.”
Council member Kshama Sawant, who spearheaded the fight for $15 an hour, recently proposed a three year phase-in for non-profits and small businesses. However, $15 Now organizing director Jess Spear, who attended last week’s community council meeting, said counting tips and healthcare benefits as wages was a non-starter.
“$15 is the minimum, it’s not the basis of loop holes and carve outs,” she said. “You can’t buy your food or pay your rent with your health care card.”
Capitol Hill bar owner Andrew Friedman said he agreed with many on the $15 Now side that more should be done to ensure large corporations pay their fair share of taxes and wages. But he said a $15 an hour minimum wage would force him to raise prices 25% at his Capitol Hill establishments, which include Liberty and the soon-to-open Good Citizen.
“Not all competition is equal — not all businesses have equalized pricing structures and not all have the same profit margins,” he said.
Gregg Holcomb, who opened Broadway’s Witness bar in August, said many on the $15 Now side wrongly assume local business owners are wealthy. He said Witness still has $270,000 of outstanding debt, which will take him seven years to pay off. “I’m just the guy with a condo down the street,” he said.
Two recent studies commissioned by the City of Seattle, and recently presented at a Seattle University symposium, showed that raising the minimum wage would be beneficial overall to the local economy. Others have argued that the studies use data that doesn’t accurately depict the constraints on local, independent businesses.
Earlier this month $15 Now organizers filed language for a charter amendment with the City Clerk. If enough signatures are gathered an unmitigated $15 an hour minimum wage could be on the ballot later this year. Meanwhile Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee is expected to release a minimum wage proposal by the end of April.
The coming week should be a busy one for Seattle as it pounds out solutions and compromises on raising the minimum wage. The mayor’s task force is slated to hold its final and — Murray hopes — summit-reaching meeting while a Thursday deadline for recommendations looms. Meanwhile, the paperwork has been filed for a charter amendment to pass a $15 wage should City Hall fail to act. Past CHS minimum wage coverage is here.
The Capitol Hill Community Council meets monthly at Cal Anderson park. This June the council will be electing new board members, open to anyone in the Capitol Hill community.