Minimum wage: even for poverty workers, it’s not simple

“Watch out, they will grow on you.”

Debbie Lacy’s dad gave this warning as she poured out pancake mix years ago. This came to mind as she was helming the meeting of the Eastside Human Services Forum working group. The topic was the $15 minimum wage issue. The group set a goal of developing a point of view from the human services perspective this year.

You would think it would be more of a no-brainer. With a room packed with people who work on poverty issues, the bias would seem to be clear. Income counters poverty, creates new consumers and addresses losses due to inflation. But watch out. It’s complicated.

• Sylvia Fuerstenberg, The Arc of King County’s Executive Director, noted that half their programs might be at risk if Seattle’s $15/hour minimum wage goes through without other supports. The contracted rate for staff wages supporting individuals with disabilities is allocated by the Washington State Legislature. If payments to The Arc and other providers of these services are not increased to fund a higher professional wage, programs for our most vulnerable citizens could disappear.

• Another pointed out the financial changes don’t just impact the lowest pay grade, but the whole payment scale as salaries for trained professional staff would need to be increased.

• For some agencies with income qualifications (sometimes set by the federal government) clients may no longer qualify for services if their income rises.

• If some cities in King County up their minimum wage, those who don’t will likely lose talented staff to organizations in higher paying regions.

Adjusting the minimum wage is a matter of justice and community health for many. “Let’s not let anxiety and the chaos of change roll over the excitement and optimism we have about the possibility of raising the minimum wage,” several said.

But in the meantime, our eyes are opening. This is not a simple issue for either businesses or service providers. The wider impacts should get a full exploration before positions solidify or a yea/nay view is set. This issue will grow on you.