It's difficult to talk about the issue of fair pay from the perspective of a business owner without sounding like a privileged, entitled jerk. The best pieces I've read have focused on specific parts of the proposal, such as some proponents' unwillingness to make any exceptions, even for tipped servers who earn well over $15/hour overall.
For most of the twenty seven years that I've run small businesses, I've earned less than my employees, who are legally entitled to at least minimum wage--however low it may be--whether or not the business actually earns enough to cover these wages. When the business didn't earn enough to cover wages, I accrued personal debt. When the business didn't earn enough to pay me, I didn't get paid.
There are laws against exploiting other people but there are no laws against exploiting yourself. I've pulled all-nighters, worked consecutive eighty-hour weeks, and gone years without a vacation.
I'm not complaining. I love my work and feel lucky to have had a strong support system during the years it took to nurture my company into solvency. I've had social and economic advantages sufficient to break multiple falls.
I honestly don't know whether I'm for or against this minimum wage proposal. It's intriguing but drastic. I'm especially worried about the lovely farmers struggling to create successful business models in the context of an industry and infrastructure that sabotages them at every turn.
I'm certainly in favor of a living wage but I'm also all too familiar with the challenges of managing small business cash flow. Workers absolutely should be paid more, especially in the foodservice industry, but the money has to come from somewhere.
On some level every penny that an employee earns is a penny that a business owner does not earn. Whether you're talking about corporations and shareholders or independent business owners working grueling schedules and paying off heavy debt, this zero-sum scenario stands in the way of finding a productive solution to the minimum wage conundrum.
Last year Patty Pan became a worker-owned cooperative. I'm still an owner, but now I'm also an employee and most of the other employees are owners as well. Our cooperative hasn't always radiated sunshine and rainbows, but we have managed to successfully collaborate, building a business that is bigger and smarter than the company I created on my own.
In healthy workplaces the interests of workers and business owners are aligned. Fair wages motivate employees to give back in ways that bring in enough revenue to cover higher payroll costs. But money is an imperfect motivator. Praise and purpose can yield even better results.
It costs little to show appreciation and build a work culture where contributions are meaningful and valued. These basic decencies can't stand in for a living wage, but they can keep workers engaged, improving a company's odds of success despite higher payroll costs.
The tragedy of the $15/hour minimum wage debate is that it pits workers against small business owners, especially if proponents insist on sudden, drastic changes and don't allow any exceptions. There's justifiable resentment on both sides, and this resentment will likely make employees feel less appreciated and make employers question whether their payroll dollars are well spent. Workers who don't feel appreciated are less likely to do quality work, less likely to help build the kind of thriving businesses that can afford to pay higher wages.
There's no way to know for certain how the proposed minimum wage hike will actually affect small businesses. It's useful to crunch numbers but the situation is really too complicated to predict. I only hope that once it's decided, we'll manage to find productive common ground and move forward without resentment and recrimination.