It’s time to recalibrate what we call a ‘living wage’

The OlympianOctober 3, 2013 

People rally outside a Subway in Seattle on Thursday during a strike aimed at the fast-food industry and minimum wage.

DAVID RYDER/REUTERS

This week’s news that the state’s minimum wage will increase by 1.45 percent to $9.32 on Jan. 1 will stimulate renewed debate about the value of setting an earnings floor for workers. Business will predict doom and gloom. Unions will project increased buying power for workers.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Back in 1998, Washington voters overwhelmingly felt the state’s minimum wage should be annually adjusted for inflation. More than 66 percent of voters approved Initiative 688, which set the 1999 wage at $5.70 and authorized the state Department of Labor & Industries to recalculate it every year at the end of August.

But that automatic escalator to the nation’s highest minimum wage hasn’t satisfied everyone.

In the November general election, City of SeaTac voters will decide whether to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour for the city’s service workers. Fast food workers in Seattle and 60 other cities across the United States are protesting for a “living wage,” which they believe is $15 per hour.

But what does a living wage mean in 2013? According to the Living Wage Calculator created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the living wage for a single adult in Thurston County is $8.50.

That calculation assumes the adult has only four expense items – food, health care, housing and transportation. It throws in an additional $74 per month for other expenses, which might buy a pair of socks and a couple of pizzas. Sounds more like a surviving wage.

Our political leaders who created the minimum wage some 50 years ago, never thought of it as a household’s primary income. It was designed for temporary workers and part-timers trying to supplement their family’s income.

Within today’s big-box store environment, and in an economy where employees have to compete for jobs with off shore workers in developing countries, the minimum wage has evolved into a family wage. The recession has forced many primary breadwinners into accepting a minimum wage just to survive.

A voice of reason has emerged in the Seattle area minimum wage debate. Tom Douglas, owner of 14 restaurants in Seattle, opposes government meddling with free enterprise, but he has voluntarily raised the pay of all his employees to $15 per hour. Why?

As he told National Public Radio, “The more you put dollars into people’s hands to be spent, I’m sure it probably would be healthy for the economy. I just don’t believe in that kind of structure (minimum wage laws).”

In other words, doing the right thing and taking good care of your employees makes business sense. If only every employer believed that.

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