As the debate over a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle moves forward, independent business owners on Capitol Hill are trying to sort out how small, local businesses can be part of a smooth transition to higher wages in the city. At Retrofit Home it could mean the loss of bonuses and commissions for seven Capitol Hill workers, according to co-owner Jon Milazzo.
“The first thing I have to do is all commissions are done,” she said. “That means people who work the hardest make the same as someone who’s just coming in.”
Entry-level workers would also be impossible to hire, said Milazzo who recently helped open the neighborhood market Cone and Steiner. In December we talked to several neighborhood business owners about a $15 an hour wage, including Poppy owner Jerry Traunfeld who said he might be forced to reduce staff or raise his prices.
Milazzo told CHS that she supports a hike to the minimum wage, but the new wage needs to allow for a total compensation — possibly including elements like healthcare, travel and training — to count towards a new minimum. Instead of “$15 now,” Milazzo’s message is “raise it right.”
“Monday morning should we raise to $11 an hour, sure … but this $15 now thing is ignorant and short sighted,” she said.
City Council member Kshama Sawant says an immediate 60% increase to the city’s minimum wage is gaining momentum. Multi-year phase ins, total compensation calculations, tip credits, and small business exemptions have all been floated as possible alternatives routes to a $15 destination. But those spearheading the $15 an hour push oppose such wage “penalties.”
Philip Locker, an organizer with the Sawant-founded $15 Now campaign, called it a “red herring” to argue that most workers already make $15 an hour in total compensation.
“If you listen to that storyline, you would think there’s hardly anyone making less than $15, but if that’s the case why has there been such a outpouring of support?” he said. “For once working people have an upper hand in the debate.” And most of Capitol Hill voters are on his side, with recent polling showing that 71% of Capitol Hill-area voters support a $15/hour minimum.
Locker said those in his camp are eager to work with “genuine” small businesses on raising the minimum wage. Having large corporations subsidize tax breaks to smaller businesses is one idea, he said.
“$15 Now and raising wages for low wage workers are not what’s crushing small business. It’s big business like Starbucks, like Target, like Amazon,” he said.
Nevertheless some indie business owners have said they feel vilified for not jumping on board with an immediate hike. Dave Meinert, owner of the Comet and Lost Lake Cafe, recently called the tactics of the pro-$15 camp “dogmatic” and “inflexible” during a Twitter exchange with Good Jobs Seattle. The exchange, by the way, is relatively civil and worth reading. There are more signs of compromise. Tim Keck, publisher of Capitol Hill-based the Stranger which has been Sawant’s biggest media cheerleader and champion of her $15 Now cause, wrote this week that Seattle can “raise the minimum wage and keep our independent business alive.”
“It would be a huge loss to the city if we lost local, independently owned businesses that can’t absorb a 60 percent wage hike the way that chain businesses can,” Keck wrote.
If $15 an hour were to come to pass this year, there wouldn’t be much of a shake-up at Molly Moon’s Ice Cream. After recently raising the wages of all her non-tipped staff to $15 an hour, Molly Moon Neitzel said she supports the city getting to $15 as soon as possible, but she’s open to a multi-year phase-in.
“We operate in a consumer driven ecomony, and when they have more money in their pockets, they’re going to spend it,” she said. “Once you get over that $30,000 threshold, you can really lighten your pocketbook.”
Andres Mantilla at CBE Strategic has been working with small business groups like the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce to help channel the message of indie owners more effectively to the public and into City Hall.
“It’s not business versus workers, businesses are complex. A lot of these small businesses have a lot invested in their employees,” Mantilla said.
Mayor Ed Murray’s minimum wage task force continues to hammer out details on recommendations he has promised by April. Many business owners and others involved have told CHS they’re waiting to see what comes out to start a more concrete policy discussion. Those owners — and Murray — will hear from the public starting next week with an income inequality forum at First Hill’s Town Hall. “This will be the first official public forum for Seattleites to share their thoughts on the concept of raising the city’s minimum wage,” the city’s announcement says. Some Capitol Hill business owners plan to speak. Many others will surely be listening.