With the deadline approaching for Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee to report on recommendations for implementing a $15 minimum wage in the City of Seattle, the discussion is heating up in a big way.

When the discussion started last fall, the momentum was all on the pro-$15 side. Mayor Murray made the increase a campaign issue before his election win last November. Newly elected City Councilmember Kshama Sawant made it virtually her only campaign issue in a surprising upset of long-term Councilmember Richard Conlin. She also vowed that if the City Council and Mayor don’t enact a no-exceptions immediate increase, she would lead a citizen’s initiative to put the issue on the ballot. Rallies were held with sign-holding demonstrators, and many stories were told and retold of the difficulty families have making ends meet on the current state minimum wage of $9.32/hour.

I mostly believe the stories. In the 1960s and 70s, when I worked at several minimum wage jobs, virtually everyone I worked with was similar to me – young, single, a student, and without a family to support. Times have changed, however, and the minimum wage hasn’t kept up with changing demographics or the cost of living. A rise in the minimum wage is certainly worth looking at.

But how did $15/hour become the magic number – a 61% increase over the current state minimum? The Washington State minimum wage, which is indexed to inflation, is the highest state minimum wage in the country and far, far above the Federal minimum wage of $7.25. Undoubtedly it will bring tremendous benefits to those currently earning the minimum wage, with decreasing benefit to those earning more than the minimum wage, but less than $15. These people, and their families, are the winners. They would also be winners at a $12, $13, or $14 minimum wage.

Are there any losers? Is there a downside to a 61% increase, or is it simply all good? Maybe if there are losers, such as fat cat corporations and over-compensated executives, they deserve to be losers – as the pro side would have you believe.

But there are losers in this story. There is another side and that story has been lost amid the shouting and half-truths.

Let’s talk human services in general and home care in particular.

A great place to start is a terrific article by Sylvia Furstenberg of the ARC of King County, How Raising the Minimum Wage to $15 Would Hurt a Nonprofit. Furstenberg states very plainly that, “we cannot achieve shared prosperity by passing a plan that risks putting nonprofits out of business, leaving vulnerable citizens without support.”

There are both non-profit and for-profit home care agencies; however, the facts remain: Whether someone is getting essential human services paid for by the State or out of their own limited savings, there is a real limit to how much extra expense governments will pick up or how much more agencies can charge. The real danger is that as well-intentioned as a 61% raise in the minimum wage may be, vulnerable people will be put at risk. Human service agencies are not restaurants. In most cases our home care clients don’t view the services we provide as discretionary; they are necessary to continue living safely and comfortably at home.

Next month, I’ll give some real-life examples of our senior clients whose wish to remain at home will be put at risk if this proposal is enacted in full. It’s not fat cat executives who are the losers here; it’s real people.

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