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Originally published February 25, 2014 at 8:09 PM | Page modified February 25, 2014 at 9:53 PM

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Minimum-wage proposal a $15 paradox for the poor

The $15-an-hour minimum wage leaves many nonprofit social-service providers in a bind. A lot of them support the idea, but their organizations can’t afford it.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Bill Hobson says the $15-an-hour wage movement is the most electrifying change in thinking he’s witnessed on an issue in more than 30 years of advocacy for the poor.

“I’m something of a 1960s radical,” Hobson says, “and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a rapid societal shift as the $15 wage.”

There’s only one hitch, and it’s a doozy: He can’t pay it.

Hobson, as director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, is Seattle’s largest employer of social workers and counselors to the homeless. He’s got 520 full-time workers running a network of apartments, shelters and crisis clinics for the city’s sickest and most vulnerable — thousands of mentally ill or drug-addicted folks who, on any given day, would be out lying on sidewalks or under bridges without the help of Hobson’s crew.

Of that crew, though, 171 make less than $15 an hour. His 30 janitors start at $11.75. The hundred-plus counselors who staff the agency’s buildings start at $12.75 — a “travesty,” Hobson says, considering many have college degrees in social work.

But paying $15 will cost him $1.25 million he doesn’t have.

“In principle, I’m all for the higher wages,” Hobson said. “But I can’t pay it. Without some major infusion of cash from the city, I would have no choice but to cut services.”

He said he would consider closing the “Day Room,” a facility at the Morrison Hotel on Third Avenue that gives 300 street homeless a place to get out of the elements or to shower during the day, when other shelters are shut.

“Those 300 would be wandering the streets,” he said.

Hobson is not alone: Nearly every social-service group, child-care center and nursing home in Seattle is in the same bind. A recent survey found a $15-an-hour wage would cost more than $10 million for a sampling of social-service agencies, while child-care centers could take up to a $20 million hit. Nursing homes were not surveyed, but would doubtless add many millions more.

The survey, by the Seattle Human Services Coalition, reached a delicate and blandly worded conclusion: that higher wages are of course desirable, but must be implemented “in a thoughtful manner to prevent unintended consequences.”

Hobson is a Seattle treasure not only for his decades of work for the poor. He also doesn’t do bland.

“What it means is we’d have to raise taxes,” Hobson said. “I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but we can’t run from it. We can’t talk about income inequality and act like the $15 wage is cost-free, with the burden borne only by someone else. We have to address how we’re going to pay for it. That includes taxpayers.”

Has anyone heard the word “taxes” mentioned in this debate before now?

Hobson believes it would take a significant city tax increase to help pay for wage boosts at an array of human-services nonprofits. Just the cost figures cited above, which are only a sampling, suggest the $15 wage could require tens of millions of dollars in new social-services revenue. Hobson said the higher wage would definitely help his employees, but not his clients because most are considered unemployable.

To be clear, Hobson’s view is Seattle should seek to raise wages anyway, and then also raise taxes to help cover the hit — something he guessed the city is probably not prepared to do.

“The worst thing they could do is just impose a one-and-a-quarter million-dollar expense on us,” he said.

Is the city even aware of these problems? I would hope so, but who really knows. Mayor Ed Murray regrettably chose to have his Income Inequality Advisory Committee meet in secret.

If you ask what they’ve been talking about for the past two months, they demur, saying they’ve been sworn to secrecy.

In that vacuum, people like Hobson and the restaurateur I featured last weekend are doing their budgets, filling in the blanks for themselves. And electrifying is giving some ground up to reality.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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