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Originally published May 12, 2014 at 5:14 PM | Page modified May 12, 2014 at 5:27 PM

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How a $15 minimum wage could affect services to poor, vulnerable

The near-poverty wage scale of the nonprofit human-services sector is the best argument for Seattle’s radical $15 wage proposal. But it also presents the biggest potential trade-off, writes columnist Jonathan Martin.


Times editorial columnist

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wow, you mean the money doesn't just appear out of thin air? MORE
BINGO!!! You get it! This is exactly what is going to happen. This can profoundly affect the most vulnerable in our... MORE
The mayor just said he would work on an exemption. So everyone is exempt, non-profit, state and federal, the schools... MORE

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James Watkins deserves a raise.

As a residential counselor at a Seattle homeless shelter run by DESC, he monitors clients’ medications and helps them through delusions, cleans up “infectious waste,” performs CPR and polices the shelter for predators. It’s physically and emotionally demanding work.

“I do all that while trying to keep an attitude of hope,” Watkins said at a Seattle City Council hearing this week.

For that, Watkins, who has a university education, started at $12 an hour, and will top out in a few years at $13.44.

If work was paid its real civic value, Watkins would earn a prince’s wages, not a pauper’s. So, too, would the bachelor’s degree-level workers in child care, drug treatment and mental health who start below $15 an hour. The legion of in-home caregivers for the developmentally disabled wouldn’t start at $10.50 an hour. Yet they do.

The near-poverty wage scale of the nonprofit human-services sector is the best argument for Seattle’s radical $15-wage proposal. But it also presents the biggest potential trade-off, because raising their wages might very well mean cuts in services to the poor and vulnerable.

On the record, the Seattle Human Services Coalition surveyed its members, and they were strongly in favor, as the group told the Seattle City Council last week.

Off-the-record, executives at those nonprofits are sweating. They know that mandating a $15 wage — even phased-in over several years — binds the city, county and state budget-writers to staggering increases in human-services spending that appear iffy, at best.

Unlike businesses, these nonprofits can’t boost prices to compensate for a wage boost. They’re at the mercy of government largesse. If it doesn’t come through, they’ll cut employee benefits or services to the poor, or both.

The cost of a $15 wage for Seattle’s nonprofits is in the tens of millions, maybe even above $100 million. The cost for in-home caregivers alone is $26 million.

There’s good reason to believe the government largesse would not flow. A few years ago, DESC and its unionized workforce asked the Seattle City Council to increase its contract so Watkins and his co-workers could get a raise of just a couple of dollars an hour. “We weren’t asking for anything close to $15,” said DESC Deputy Director Dan Malone. They were rebuffed.

Ditto for the state Legislature, which has heard years of protests about the $10.50 starting wage for home-care workers. Wages have been essentially frozen for years — until workers got a 30 cent-an-hour bump.

House budget chairman Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, is sympathetic. “Pretty soon you can’t hire someone to take care of an elder in their home because they’ll get paid more at McDonald’s,” he said.

How will Seattle’s progressive agenda be greeted by the Legislature, which has a history of scoffing at big Seattle progressive ideas? “I think it’ll be somewhat controversial,” Hunter said, with characteristic sarcasm.

Phasing in a $15 wage over seven years, as Mayor Ed Murray proposes, would help — a bit. As Seattle City Council member Sally Clark said at last week’s hearing, isn’t that “just a slower path to needing more money?”

When advocates for $15 are asked about the effects of it on the human-services sector, the response is often little more than dorm-room slogans: Tax the millionaires. Make the corporations pay.

Translate that to public policy: an income tax, and a big boost in something like B&O taxes. Neither are on any political agenda, not even the Seattle City Council’s.

The same survey that found Seattle Human Services Coalition in favor of a $15 wage also asked how the nonprofits would balance their budgets if higher wages weren’t offset with more government spending.

It’s a grisly list: cuts to the mentally ill, homeless, developmentally disabled and at-risk youth. “The programs most vulnerable to cuts in this case are serving the poorest people,” one member wrote.

I hope Watkins and his co-workers come out of this debate with a raise. Where that money — and it will be a very big chunk of money — comes from is a mystery.

Before the Seattle City Council passes a $15 wage — and puts nonprofits on a path toward cuts — it must resolve the mystery. If it doesn’t, the costs of a $15 wage might well be paid by the most vulnerable.

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is jmartin@seattletimes.com



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