Sometimes, less means less

Who works for minimum wage? Once upon a time, the answer came easier.

Minimum wage workers were young people or the newly arrived, hoping for experience and advancement. Some were voluntary part-timers, taking temporary gigs to supplement household incomes. In the most unfortunate cases, they were people who struggled in many aspects of life, not just in holding down a job.

Businesses and policymakers could justify marginal wages because few of these jobs were permanent positions for primary bread winners.

Today’s employment scene would be unrecognizable to the leaders who crafted the current minimum-wage law in the mid-60s. It has been mangled by out-sourcing and off-shoring, burgeoning immigration, and a great recession (which was triggered by big banks but cruelest to the lowest paid and least secure workers).

Who worked for minimum wage during the recession? Often it was employees capable of doing more, but desperate for paychecks of any kind. Now, with the country stirring from the recession, battle lines are forming over the minimum wage.

Lower costs are better than higher costs — so recession-battered businesses and their lobbyists have emphatically staked out their positions. Higher wages will kill jobs, they argue. Why endanger the tepid recovery? Besides, some economists theorize that boosting the minimum wage might actually hurt bottom-tier workers overall.

But more pay is better than less pay — so, workers and their advocates are pushing for substantial increases. President Obama told Congress he favors a minimum wage of at least $9 an hour. And fast-food employees in several cities have joined a boisterous campaign by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United to win a $15 an hour wage. In our state, whose minimum wage tops the nation, Seattle’s mayor vows to ensnarl a grocer in red tape unless it promises union-level wages.

A cynic views this as inevitable…two sides pursuing self interests. After all, do trust and reasonable dialog pay the rent or reward the stockholders?

Actually, good companies discover the difference between prudent management and a bruising race to the bottom. And at least two Pacific Northwest employers have demonstrated the kind of business leadership needed to soften sharp ideological edges.

Costco has turned a lot of heads by demonstrating it can pay an average of $20 an hour and still make a profit. A very good profit. And Seattle’s chef-in-chief Tom Douglas declared he’s raising the minimum for his restaurant employees to $15 dollars an hour.

Is Douglas trying to appease a bullying mayor? No, he hates government meddling and mandates. He just thinks that having loyal, well-paid employees makes business sense.

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