Seattle Councilmembers Sally Clark and Jean Godden answer questions after the Ethnic Community Coalition forum. • Photo by Rebecca Yeung
Seattle Councilmembers Sally Clark and Jean Godden answer questions after the Ethnic Community Coalition forum. • Photo by Rebecca Yeung

More than 80 representatives of small and minority businesses gathered at New Hong Kong Restaurant on April 23 to voice their opinions and concerns about a proposed Seattle minimum wage hike.

The Ethnic Community Coalition held a “save immigrant jobs and businesses” forum at New Hong Kong Restaurant in the International District for immigrants and small business owners to speak directly to Seattle City Council members about their concerns regarding an increase in the minimum wage. Councilmembers Sally Clark and Jean Godden attended the forum.

Many business owners agreed that income inequality is an important issue that needs to be discussed and accept a small raise in the minimum wage. But they cannot afford a 60 percent jump, they said.

David Leong, Vice President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said that with the bad economy, raising the minimum wage to $15 is unreasonable.

“If the economy is strong, if the businesses are doing well, why not? I would give bonuses to my staff,” he said. “But the world economy is bad. If you are talking about Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, … they are going to do good no matter what. But Boeing and Microsoft are not going to uphold the economy.”

Washington currently has the highest minimum wage in the nation at $9.32 per hour. Connecticut has passed an ordinance to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is currently proposing a phased-in $15 minimum wage.

“I support fixing the income inequality gap, I agree the minimum wage should be raised,” I-Miun Liu, owner of Oasis and Eastern Café said. “I don’t agree going up to $15 right away.”

With about 40 employees, Liu pays about $13,000 every two weeks and $4,000 in taxes on top of that. With the minimum wage increase, not only will the cost of payroll go up, but the tax as well. Liu said that he may have to stop his plan of expanding the business and increase the menu prices.

Lan Tran owns Tony’s Bakery and Deli and Banh Mi Unwrapped and has about 13 employees. Tran said that with the raise of minimum wage, she will have to close or relocate her businesses.

As an owner of insurance agencies, Lawrence Pang, board member and past president of Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said his biggest cost is payroll.

“We have no food product, my main cost is wages,” he said. “Sixty percent jump? I’m leaving. I can’t afford it, I will leave Seattle.”

Pang is also worried that with the raise, people outside of Seattle will arrive to compete with local employees, which defeats the purpose of helping the lowest-waged workers.

Multiple representatives, including Susanna Tran, daughter of Lan Tran, expressed that for the immigrant community, these businesses not only provide them job opportunities, but also teach them skills, provide them with care and help, and provide a place to connect with the community. Clark guessed that with the increase in the minimum wage, we would see more Pizza Huts and McDonald’s instead of more New Hong Kong.

“A lot of current business owners were my parents’ employees,” said Susanna Tran. “Minimum wage is a starting point for everybody. They learn the skills and open their own business.”

The UW Evans Schools of Public Affairs expects that with the increase of minimum wage, the poverty rate will drop from 13.6 percent to 9.4 percent given the same employment and hours. Food stamp benefits for a minimum wage worker family will also drop from $348 to $75.

Researchers at UC Berkeley have found that in San Francisco, the family poverty rates and the enrollments in public assistance programs, such as food stamps, decrease as the minimum wage increases.

It is shown in the same research that with a 10 percent increase in minimum wage, the operating costs for restaurants will increase by 1 to 2 percent. The increase of payroll cost can also be absorbed by reduced turnover costs and small price raises in the menu.

However, there is not enough evidence that shows the San Francisco study can apply to other cities. With the 60 percent raise, business owners are worried that the payroll costs will outgrow the profit, as most of the small businesses make less than $50,000 per year, said Trong Pham, President of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.

“I would rather work for $12 an hour for years until the economy gets strong [than getting fired]. Having some income is better than having no income,” Leong said.

Loeng was disappointed that only two councilmembers attended the forum. “It’s disappointing,” he said. “Heart breaking … We voted them in.”

Mike Sotelo, president of King County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also questioned if the council really understood their needs and could represent them when there were so many empty seats for the councilmembers in the forum.

Related:

Opinion: It’s time to raise wages and focus on policies to help immigrants
Breaking: Mayor Murray details minimum wage plan, small businesses up to $15 in seven years
Open Letter: Ethnic business community finally raises voice and says ‘no’ to $15 minimum wage hike
Mayor Ed Murray makes immediate move toward $15 minimum wage for city employees
News commentary: Seattle’s grassroots minimum wage movement prepares for war

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