Is Olympia ready to raise minimum wage?

Should Olympia raise the minimum wage?

As cities including Seattle and SeaTac pursue a minimum wage of $15 an hour, Olympia City Councilman Jim Cooper wants the discussion to begin in South Sound.

Washington’s $9.32 minimum wage is the highest in the nation. The federal minimum wage is $7.32 an hour.

However, minimum wage falls short of what Olympia considers a living wage for single adults, which is $13.64 an hour, according to the city’s comprehensive plan. Cooper said that gap is worth exploring as Olympia tries to improve its economic health.

A panel of four business leaders weighed the pros and cons of a higher minimum wage during Tuesday’s General Government Committee meeting. The city’s Finance Committee, on which Cooper also belongs, will review the topic next month.

“If we’re going to have this conversation, it should be based on data,” Cooper said Tuesday. “What do we tell a single parent who can’t rent an apartment in our city if they work here?”

Some retailers and restaurants already pay more than the state’s minimum wage. A $15 minimum wage in Olympia would be no problem, said Mike Fritsch, owner of Eastside Big Tom’s, where most employees earn between $13 and $13.50 an hour.

The popular drive-thru near the Fourth Avenue-Pacific Avenue junction has been serving burgers, fries and shakes since 1948. Big Tom’s keeps prices down by only accepting cash and checks, Fritsch said, noting that credit card fees can add up to 3 percent. Big Tom’s employs 13 full-time and three part-time workers, he said.

“We’d have to hike prices minimally, but that would happen with everybody,” he said, adding that fears are overblown when considering a higher minimum wage. “Olympia is pretty adaptable.”

However, business leaders at Tuesday’s meeting were skeptical about raising the minimum wage, especially as the economy returns to pre-recession levels.

“Businesses would leave,” said David Schaffert, CEO of the Thurston Chamber of Commerce. “They would look for a competitive advantage.”

Schaffert was joined Tuesday by Olympia Downtown Association president Connie Lorenz, Thurston Economic Development Council director Michael Cade, and Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitor and Convention Bureau director George Sharp. All four said their respective boards had not yet discussed the topic.

Employees who already earn $15 an hour, such as some hotel housekeepers, for example, would expect to make more money if a higher minimum wage were enacted, Sharp said.

“That cost gets passed on to the consumer,” Sharp said.

The higher wage isn’t as necessary because Thurston County’s business and housing climates are more affordable than Seattle, Cade said. A higher cost of labor could also hinder new business growth in a county where 90 percent of businesses have 10 employees or less, he said.

“There is a fear factor out there on businesses,” said Lorenz, citing cutbacks by businesses during the recession. “Timing-wise, I think it’s way off for this community. I don’t think it would be a good conversation.”

San Francisco has the nation’s highest minimum wage of $10.74 an hour, and voters there will decide in November whether to raise it to $15 an hour.

In 2013, SeaTac voters passed a $15 minimum wage law that is tied up with the state Supreme Court.

Seattle’s recently approved $15 minimum wage is scheduled to be phased in beginning in April. Small businesses would have up to seven years to reach a $15 minimum wage for employees, for example.

The Seattle ordinance is also facing legal and political opposition. State initiative guru Tim Eyman has launched an effort to repeal Seattle’s law through a ballot measure that would prohibit cities from raising minimum wage above the state’s level.