$15 minimum wage would kill jobs

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My first job, in 1970, was at the minimum wage. It was not a family wage, and I wasn't expecting one.

I think of that job because of SeaTac's Nov. 5 ballot measure for a restricted $15 minimum wage, and the support by some Seattle politicians for a broad $15 minimum wage. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn — who is trying to out-progressive his challenger, state Sen. Ed Murray — says he would support a city minimum wage higher than $15.

My job was to shred lettuce and cheese at a Mexican restaurant. I opened up in the morning, worked alone and locked up again. The work was easy. The difficult thing for an 18-year-old was to get up and do it. I could cut a 9:30 a.m. class at the university, but not my job. In a sense, I was learning how to be an employee.

The job lasted two months. Seattle was in the "Boeing depression," the restaurant trade was down, and the owner said he could cut up the lettuce and cheese himself. But he gave a good reference, and I was on my way.

Your first job requires an employer to take a chance. At that point, a high minimum wage is not your friend. The higher the pay, the more likely it will attract an applicant more qualified than you.

The campaign for SeaTac's $15 minimum wage, Proposition 1, wants voters to think of a much different worker. When its advocates visited The Seattle Times editorial board, they brought a worker with them, Roxan Seibel. She works in an airport shop and has been in retail for 30 years. She is a single mother who reared two kids. She recently received a raise to $13.95 an hour, which is 50 percent higher than next year's state minimum of $9.32. For her, a $15 wage would not be unreasonable, which is just the message the campaign wanted to send: Nothing radical here.

That depends on the person to whom the $15 applies.

The unions, whose political project this is, are set up to negotiate pay and benefits for members doing similar work. Whether to ask for $15 or some other wage will depend on who the workers are, what alternatives they have, how easily their employer can replace them or raise prices to absorb their demands. The situation of each group is different, which is why labor contracts are different.

Work changes

A minimum wage applies indiscriminately to workers in dissimilar situations. The higher the minimum wage and the more broadly it applies, the more disparate the results. For the $9.32 beginners' job, a $15 wage is a giant raise of 61 percent — if his or her job still exists. For the $13.95 job, it's a 7.5 percent raise.

So far, the $15 is proposed only for urban areas, but the intent is to spread it. I know a family of hay farmers in Snohomish County who hire teenagers to stack bales at $10 an hour.

There is a skill to it, says Nettie Stanton, and each year it is harder to find youths who can do it. Her alternative is to buy a machine to roll the hay into big plastic-covered marshmallow-shaped bales. The machine costs as much as a new luxury car; buying it would transfer jobs from her farm to a farm-equipment factory in another state.

Work changes. At the taco shop where I buy lunch, the lettuce and cheese now come in bags, already shredded at a food-processing plant. Jack up the minimum to $15 and you will see more changes: maybe some you won't like.


Bruce Ramsey is a columnist for The Seattle Times. Email: bramsey@seattletimes.com.