Among Supporters Of $15 Minimum Wage, Some Trepidation

May 8, 2014

The Downtown Emergency Services Center operates an emergency shelter for homeless people, along with permanent housing, at The Morrison Building in Seattle's Pioneer Square
The Downtown Emergency Services Center operates an emergency shelter for homeless people, along with permanent housing, at The Morrison Building in Seattle's Pioneer Square
Credit KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

Non-profit human service providers Wednesday voiced concerns on Wednesday about a proposed plan to raise the minimum wage in Seattle to $15 an hour.

Organizations that help homeless, mentally ill, disabled, and elderly people testified before the City Council that while they support raising the minimum wage, they would have to lay off staff or cut services without additional funding.

The Seattle Human Services Coalition surveyed its members about the impact of a minimum wage increase. The 28 organizations that responded reported they would need an additional $10.9 million to raise the wages of their lowest paid staff to $15 an hour.

“If we didn’t have additional revenue to support services, as we increase wages, cuts would be inevitable,” said Steve Daschle, the coalition’s co-chair.

More mentally ill people on the streets?

The Downtown Emergency Services Center is one of the largest human service providers in the city.

DESC provides a range of services, including emergency shelter beds, supportive housing, hygiene facilities, and mental health counseling. On any given day, 2,100 people, many of them mentally ill, physically disabled, or dealing with substance abuse, use DESC’s services.

Most staff members make more than $15 an hour. But a third of its employees, roughly 171 people, make less.

Jesse Inman, a counselor at a DESC shelter, is one of them.

After spending his career working in the "low end of non-profits," Inman told the City Council Wednesday he's excited about the prospect of finally making a living wage.

“I think it’s absolutely a matter of social justice that the people who do this work are able to live in Seattle, because we are the people who make the city function. The city would fall apart without the work that we do," Inman said.

DESC's Executive Director Bill Hobson personally supports a $15 an hour minimum wage, but worries that it could lead to cuts in services
DESC's Executive Director Bill Hobson personally supports a $15 an hour minimum wage, but worries that it could lead to cuts in services
Credit KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

That puts DESC’s Executive Director Bill Hobson in an awkward position. Hobson says he personally supports the idea of a $15 an hour minimum wage, and he wants his employees to earn more.

But raising their wages to $15 an hour would cost the organization between $1.3 and $1.8 million per year.

“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” he said. “And my great concern is it's going to translate into a reduction of employees, which will translate into a reduction of service, which means more mentally ill, more drug and alcohol affected people will be out on the streets.”

Where Will The Money Come From?

Raising wages presents a particular problem for human service organizations.

For the most part, they get their funding from public entities -- city, county, state and federal governments.

Human service providers argue that if the city raises the minimum wage, the city should also provide more funding to help these organizations cope with the higher costs.

City Council President Sally Clark agrees in principle but said she doesn’t know where the money will come from.

"It's going to take a lot more creative thinking about how do we pay for social services in our region. I would be lying if I were to tell them I know how to fill that budget gap tomorrow," she said.

Clark points out that the mayor’s plan provides for the minimum wage to be phased in over several years, and that would give the city more time to identify funding.

DESC's Bill Hobson says he has a fair degree of optimism the city's elected leaders can find a solution.

"Maybe we fill fewer potholes," Hobson said. "But somebody has to come up with the money. We cannot afford to take steps back in service to this population."