Raising the minimum wage in Olympia

Give credit to Olympia City Council member Jim Cooper for his willingness to tackle tough issues. As chair of the city’s finance committee, he recently started a discussion about raising Olympia’s minimum wage to $15 per hour.

A panel of representatives from South Sound business groups recently discussed the proposal at a general government committee meeting. Predictably, they painted a doom and gloom scenario to a higher minimum wage. Businesses would leave town. Prices to consumers would go up. Small stores would go out of business.

But the most surprising statement came from Thurston Economic Development Council director Michael Cade who said a higher wage isn’t needed in Thurston County because housing is more affordable here.

Really? Cade seems a little out-of-touch with workers at the low end of the income scale who would benefit from a higher minimum wage. And his comment doesn’t square with the facts.

At Washington state’s minimum wage of $9.32 – the highest of all 50 states – a person in Olympia needs to work 58 hours per week to afford a decent studio apartment, according to a report produced by the National Low Income Housing coalition and Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

The report calculates metropolitan Thurston County’s housing wage at $14.81, or $5.49 above the state’s minimum wage. A “housing wage” is what someone must earn to spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities in a safe, modest home.

According to Thurston Thrives, there are 37,618 households in our county who are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing, and another 53,943 households paying between 30 percent and 49 percent of their income on housing.

Low wages and rising housing costs trap people in poverty and closes off avenues of upward mobility. In turn, that deepens the divide between rich and poor and keeps people from ever reaching middle-income status.

And it’s the middle and higher income wage earners who can afford to shop and support small businesses.

Fortunately, Olympia has some business owners like Mike Fritsch, of the Eastside Big Tom’s drive-thru eatery, who already pay close to $15 per hour and who see value in a higher minimum wage. Fritsch thinks fears of raising the wage are overblown.

During the City of Seattle’s minimum wage debate, Tom Douglas, owner of 14 restaurants in Seattle, emerged as voice of reason. 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.”

In other words, doing the right thing and taking good care of your employees makes business sense. It could make sense for the City of Olympia, too.