$15/hour minimum wage may kill small businesses

By Sue Misao
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Mayor Ed Murray addresses owners of small businesses at a meeting the mayor’s office arranged at the New Hong Kong Restaurant on April 15 to discuss impacts of the proposed $15/hour minimum wage. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

In theory, a $15/hour minimum wage sounds great, until reality hits the small businesses that have to pay the new wage. That was the general consensus at a Chinatown gathering of about 20 minority business owners April 15 at the New Hong Kong Restaurant. Mayor Ed Murray came to listen.

“Although it’s a really important topic, it’s divided the city, which I think is unfortunate,” said I-Miun Liu, owner of the Eastern Cafe. “I want income inequality to be fixed, and I want them to make more money if possible.”

Liu was concerned that all businesses are being grouped together. “A restaurant is just a different animal. A cup of coffee I sell for $3, I don’t make $3 on that,” he said.

Mayor Murray described the work of his Income Inequality Advisory Committee, which comprises business owners, labor leaders, and nonprofits. It will report its findings on April 24.

“What I see around that table are people who are understanding each other,” he said. “What happens, regrettably, is the media likes to take the one group, 15 Now, and play them against businesses. I think the people in the room, whether they’re business or employee groups, understand that it’s a far more complex issue.

“There’s nobody evil in the room,” he added.

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate to the ground floor,” said Empire Espresso owner Tino Banacias.

“Whether you have harmonious communication in a meeting of a group of chosen leaders regarding these topics, it’s playing out differently for us.”

Tomoko Matsuno, CEO of Uwajimaya, said she is not an advocate of the $15/hour wage, but has been impressed with the way the Advisory Committee is accounting for all points of view. “They have a whole alphabet soup of things they’re trying to mix and present to the mayor, and one of them — believe it or not — is the phase-in. It’s not $15 tomorrow.” Matsuno said people in the community are not getting that message.

The group 15 Now filed an amendment on April 14 to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour beginning Jan. 1, 2015. “If the city council does not pass a strong ordinance that covers all workers without needless delays or loopholes, we can put it to the people of Seattle to vote to end poverty wages,” states the 15 Now website. A major bone of contention is over the inclusion of tips and health benefits in the higher wage.

Taylor Hoang, owner of Pho Cyclo Cafe, said the immigrant community hasn’t been well represented on the committee. “They come here with very little skills, very little experience, they barely speak English,” she said. “If we are presented with this legislation…we will have a better pool of skilled employees from which to hire. If that’s the case, I will forego hiring someone that barely speaks English. I will choose to hire someone that is much more highly skilled and has a lot of experience. What happens to the immigrant community that is left behind?”

Hoang also worried that with higher wages, some may no longer qualify for subsidized housing, Medicare, food stamps, subsidized child care, and discounted utilities — things that provide a safety net for those who endure fluctuating work hours. Without that safety net, she said, “They will choose to either work part-time, or they will choose not to work at all.”

Hoang said she is for income equality, and wants her employees to be able to support themselves. “But at the same time, my mother, at 60 years old, who owns the restaurant down the street, is still working seven days a week, 14 hours a day, for the last 30-some years.” If $15/hour passes, said Hoang, her mother will have to let one or two of her employees go, and work even harder.

“In my heart, I agree with the $15/hour thing,” said another coffee shop owner. “It’s hard balancing what you feel is right with reality. If I have to pay [my employees] $15 an hour, I’m going to be poor for the rest of my life.”

“Speaking on behalf of my employees, they’re really happy with what they’re getting paid,” said Jasmine Mac of the New Hong Kong restaurant, “If $15 goes up, I’m going to shut the door. Give us time. Please don’t shut us down.”

“Although I support a wage increase, I don’t see it being at the $15/hour,” said Nikita Mathis, owner of Platinum Plush Fashions, “especially for businesses such as myself, who hire entry-level youth.” Mathis said she pays her three employees $10 to $10.50 an hour. “I believe the $15 will be crippling to small businesses.” She suggested the legislation target large companies that generate a certain amount of revenue each month, and have them pay their employees more.

Many felt that the $15/hour would drive small businesses away, and Seattle would ultimately lose its charm. “I truly don’t think raising the minimum wage is the answer,” said Yen Lam-Steward of Lam’s Seafood. “We’re going to change the dynamic of Seattle because of this unfair mandate.”

Murray acknowledged the importance of immigrant businesses in Seattle. “We are trying to reach a solution, so we don’t have to go to ballot,” he said.

“We get the work you do,” he added. “And I am hearing this.”

Also in attendance was Maggie Thompson, community affairs manager in the Office of the Mayor; Aaliyah Gupta, acting director of the Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs; Steve Johnson, director of the Office of Economic Development; and Lance Randall, business relations manager in the Office of Economic Development.

The mayor and city council members will attend another public forum to discuss the $15 /hour wage on Wednesday, April 23, from 2–4 p.m. at the New Hong Kong Restaurant, 900 S. Jackson St. (end)

Sue Misao can be reached at editor@nwasianweekly.com.

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