Seattle Businesses Find Talking About Minimum Wage ‘Scary;’ David Meinert Does Anyway

Asked for her reaction recently to the mounting call for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle, Kate Joncas, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, said her group hadn’t talked about it yet. And then she hung up.

While SeaTac’s Proposition 1 on a $15-an-hour wage sparked active opposition, the issue is obviously touchy in Seattle, where everyone likes to think of themselves as “progressive.” David Meinert, owner of The 5 Spot and a prominent music promoter, notes that “everyone is talking about it” privately, but many find it “scary” to talk about publicly for fear of being labeled “a bad person” and perhaps targeted for a consumer boycott.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that the business community will weigh in on an issue that affects them so directly. And Meinert, more outspoken than most, expresses views that indicate how at least one wing of the business community might respond. Essentially, Meinert supports raising the minimum wage--but not to $15 an hour. And he wants a nuanced policy that might affect different types of businesses differently.

“It’s really interesting what Washington D.C is doing,” he says. The city council there passed a measure requiring retailers with revenues of more than $1 billion a year to pay a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour. Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the measure in September after Walmart, one of the measure’s intended targets, threatened to pull planned stores for the area.

That idea, or something like it, might fly nonetheless in Seattle, Meinert asserts. “If you pass something that says companies making over a billion a year have to pay $15 an hour, nobody’s going to complain,” he says. It would be a completely different story, he adds, if you pass such a minimum wage for “small day cares, small non-profits and other small businesses.” Seattle might even want to exempt certain small businesses from a minimum wage hike, he says.

What many people don’t realize, he points out, is that SeaTac’s Prop 1 does not apply to all of the city’s businesses, only to companies serving the airport and meeting certain criteria.

Meinert also says he’d like to reframe the conversation in terms of the total employment package—so not just wages, but health insurance and retirement benefits. He is just starting to offer a 401K his 5 Spot employees, who start at $10.50 an hour, more than $1 over the state minimum wage (unless they rely heavily on tips).

The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce would like to open up the conversation even further. When dealing with the “opportunity gap,” says president and CEO Maud Daudon, the term she uses to mean the people’s inability to lift themselves from poverty, “there’s lots of tools in the toolkit.” She mentions education, affordable housing and transit.

Businesses are kidding themselves, though, if they think they can deflect the conversation entirely away from the minimum wage. Inspired by SeaTac, politicians and activists alike are newly focusing on that issue all across the country. Late last month, reacting to the veto by Washington D.C.’s mayor of the measure aimed at Walmart, a supermajority of the council said they will support a new bill that would raise the minimum wage 40 percent over three years for all businesses, to $11.50 an hour.

As Meinert indicates, the critical debate in Seattle is likely to revolve around exactly how high the minimum wage should go and which businesses should have to pay it.

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