Wages will soon be on the rise in Seattle, as businesses begin the slow transition to a newly mandated $15 per hour minimum wage.
Since the measure passed June 2, 15 Now activists have celebrated, the International Franchise Association has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit and small business owners have made dire predictions about their future survival.
But who really stands to benefit from a higher minimum wage?
Puget Sound Sage, an organization that works to provide opportunities for families in the Seattle metro area released a report in April titled “Economic and Equity Outcomes of a $15/hr Minimum Wage in Seattle.”
The group found that jobs paying below $15 per hour in Seattle are concentrated in three main industries: accommodations & food services, health-care & social assistance, and retail.
And another study conducted for the City of Seattle by the University of Washington found that these low-wage industries disproportionately employ people of color. The lowest of the low wage jobs (those paying below $9.32 per hour) are mostly held by Latino, black and Asian workers.
Araceli Hernandez, Programs Director for Casa Latina, a non-profit organization that helps Latino seasonal workers find employment opportunities, also believes a higher minimum wage will empower immigrant communities.
Casa Latina brought their own minimum hourly pay rate up to $15 in 2012 and raised it to $16 earlier this month. Since the 2012 increase they report that there has been no significant impact on the rate of hiring for Casa Latina workers.
“Initially, it did have an impact, but very quickly the number of jobs went back up again,” said Jose Oblitas, the president of the Worker Leaders Committee at Casa Latina’s hiring hall.
Hernandez predicts that the new minimum wage law will have a positive impact on the lives of some of Casa Latina’s workers.
“Women who work as a house cleaners, nannies or caregivers through agencies will benefit,” said Hernandez, noting that the agencies that provide domestic workers typically pay well below $15 per hour right now.
Ubah Aden works as a home care aid through another agency. She currently makes $10.95 per hour, an amount that she says makes it tough to support her three children.
“It will allow not only myself, but other home care aids, to ease the bills, to do something special with their kids, to buy new shoes for their kids that don’t fall apart two months from now,” said Aden, who immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia.
Home care work, she says, isn’t just a job — it’s important work caring for people’s loved ones. She doesn’t feel that her current wages are representative of the value of the work she does.
Aden hopes the $15 minimum wage will be mandated across Washington state, as do other members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Chapter 775NW, which represents over 40,000 long term care workers in Washington and Montana.
Still, it’s hard for some workers to celebrate a pay increase coming next year when they can’t fathom how they will pay next month’s rent.
That’s where a lot of Seattle service workers have found themselves recently: working for wages that aren’t sufficient to afford rising costs of living in the city. Seattle rents increased by over 27 percent between 2009 and the end of 2013, according to a calculation based on research by Apartment Insights Washington.
Abe King works as a dishwasher at the Harvest Vine, a restaurant in Madison Valley. King expressed some concern that people like him who have worked hard to make their way up to wages around $15/hour over the years will suddenly find themselves back at the bottom of the pay scale, alongside those with comparatively little experience or seniority. That’s a surprisingly common sentiment among service workers in Seattle.
But King says his boss, who supported the wage increase, explained it to him in a way that made him realize the community as a whole will benefit from the higher minimum.
“My owner was for it. It’s nice hearing an owner happy about it,” he said, “because of the bigger picture.”
Not all small business owners in Seattle feel this way, though, as reported by the Seattle Globalist earlier this month.
And soon after the City Council passed the minimum wage ordinance, a group of small business owners called “Forward Seattle” unleashed a small army of paid signature gatherers to try to get a more conservative $12.50/hour minimum wage on the November ballot. After it was revealed the voter-sponsored amendments could not be on the ballot until November 2015, they switched tactics to lobbying the City Council to put a slower minimum wage phase-in to voters this year.
It’s not just small business owners who are worried: big business isn’t exactly delighted either. Big retail and service companies like Starbucks and Target will see a significant increase in labor costs. Baristas and cashiers at the Seattle branches of those companies currently make $9.60 and $8.97 respectively per hour, according to Glassdoor.com.
But as business interests protest, the call for higher minimum wages seems to be picking up momentum nationally and garnering attention from around the globe.
The U.S. federal minimum wage lags well behind that of many other developed nations. Earlier this week the International Monetary Fund released a report on the state of the U.S. economy. Among a laundry list of other recommendations the IMF suggested it would make sound macroeconomic sense for the U.S. to raise the federal minimum wage.