Seattle symposium focuses on increasing the minimum wage

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Yen Lam, left, owner of Lam’s Seafood Market, and Taylor Hoang, owner of Pho Cyclo Café, attended the symposium to learn more about the effect of $15/hour on small businesses. (Photo by James Tabafunda/NWAW)

While the cost of living and CEO compensation packages continue to rise, many Washington state workers find their paychecks unchanged from the minimum wage of $9.32/hour. In San Francisco, $10.74/hour is the minimum wage, and in Washington, D.C., it will be $11.50/hour by 2016.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray wants a meaningful pay raise for city employees and “to find a solution so that every worker in Seattle earns a living wage for their work.”

The one-day Income Inequality Symposium on March 27 at Seattle University provided a public forum on the growing income gap, or what President Obama called the “defining challenge of our time.”

The event’s first plenary, “Understanding the Problem,” dealt with questions such as what is income inequality and why should we be concerned? And what is a “living wage” in Seattle?

The event — co-sponsored by the City of Seattle, Seattle University, and Local Progress — invited academic researchers, city councilmembers from around the nation, business owners, and concerned citizens to share their findings and thoughts.

Their feedback will be used by the Income Inequality Advisory Committee — co-chaired by Howard Wright, founder and CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, and David Rolf, president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW — to come up with recommendations for Murray by the end of April.

The minority effect

“Here in Seattle, we know that the weight of this economic disparity falls disproportionately on people of color and on women,” Murray said. More than 40 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander workers earn less than $15 an hour.

Murray mentioned attending a dinner last week with local Vietnamese restaurant owners, saying, “Quite honestly, they’re afraid about the impacts on their already struggling businesses.” He then asked supporters of a higher minimum wage to “engage in a dialogue with these folks, that these mostly immigrant, small-owned restaurants are people that we should be working with because they are also employees of their own businesses.”

Taylor Hoang is the owner of Pho Cyclo Café, a chain of five Vietnamese restaurants throughout Seattle and Bellevue. A businesswoman for the last 10 years, she attended the symposium and says it did not present any information that might help small business owners like her.

In February, protestors gathered in downtown Seattle to “Boycott McPoverty” and push for a $15/hour minimum wage, carrying red signs that read, “Seattle Needs a Raise – 15 NOW.”

Concerned that a $15/hour minimum wage would cause prices at her four Seattle restaurants to go up, Hoang said, “What do I do for the store in Bellevue? It’s not fair to the locals in Bellevue that I should match the price in Seattle, but if I don’t raise my prices and my suppliers are raising their prices, I’m at a loss in Bellevue.”

The notion of fairness also applies to her long-time employees, people who are paid more than the current minimum wage. She also has part-time workers who are college students. “They’re coming in at $15 if this passes, and that’s not fair to the employees that I have that have worked for me for five to eight years,” Hoang said.

“We employ a lot of Vietnamese immigrants in order to help them get started in this country, and we don’t have a choice of better skilled, a huge pool of people who are looking for jobs to pick from like the majority of the other larger businesses.”

Hoang says small business owners like her are “stuck with a small group of under-skilled workers that we still have to pay $15. By doing that, we put ourselves out of business and are putting them at a disadvantage because we can’t continue to hire them, so it comes back to them not addressing these bottom-line issues.”

Panelists Ken Jacobs and Professor Michael Reich of the University of California, Berkeley presented their study on the impact of minimum wage laws. It states that increased labor costs can be absorbed from the savings from such factors as “reduced worker turnover and improved efficiency.”

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Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant (Photo by James Tabafunda/NWAW)

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant served as a panelist for the afternoon session titled “Addressing the Problem Through Minimum Wage — Exploring Solutions.”

“What kind of society are we aiming to be if we’re not going to fight for the majority of our population to have decent living standards and dignity of life?” Sawant asked the audience. Supporting the $15/hour minimum wage, she said, “I don’t want to be defending a system that argues that the only way you can survive is by keeping a majority of the work force in poverty. We have to recognize that immigrants are the backbone of this community, of this entire nation, especially undocumented migrants and their children provide a lot of the hardest of the work and some of the most invisible of the work.” (end)

For videos of the Income Inequality Symposium, visit www.seattlechannel.org.

James Tabafunda can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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