You Should Read This Story About Seattle’s “Minimum Wage Meltdown That Never Happened”

This morning, Puget Sound Business Journal published an extraordinary cover story by Jeanine Stewart. The headline? “Apocalypse Not: $15 and the cuts that never came.” The story is right now hidden behind a paywall, but PSBJ managing editor Steven Goldsmith has outlined the piece as an “Editor’s Pick.” Here’s the front page:

You don't see this kind of thing on front pages of papers very often.

You don’t see this kind of thing on front pages of papers very often.

I encourage you to go out and pick up a copy, because it’s a rare case of the media making a clear-eyed assessment of threats levied by small business owners when local government starts discussing a minimum wage increase. As an autopsy of those threats, this is top-notch work.

Stewart quotes Tom Douglas’s prediction, published by The Stranger, warning that “I don’t know that [a $15 minimum wage] would put us out of business, but I would say we lose maybe a quarter of the restaurants downtown.” Of course, anyone who has visited downtown Seattle in the last few months knows that we’re not hurting for restaurants. Stewart puts Douglas’s claims up against the facts:

Dozens of new restaurants have opened in the city since April 1, including many new eateries run by the law’s fiercest critics, such as Douglas… King County has issued 5,227 permits for food service establishments in Seattle so far this year, which new and existing restaurants must get each year. That’s well on the way to surpassing the 5,458 permits issued all last year and the 5,415 issued in 2013.

So Douglas’s prediction in that Stranger story was entirely wrong. In fact, Stewart notes, “Douglas has now changed his mind about the law, saying he was ‘naive’ to think that restaurants would raise pay on their own.” Douglas’s restaurant empire continues to expand—my favorite Douglas restaurant, Cantina Lena, opened after the minimum wage increase was approved—and his employees are happy about both developments. Stewart quotes Dezi Bonow, a head chef at another new Douglas restaurant, as praising the increase for “legitimiz[ing] cooking as a craft.”

So Tom Douglas fell on his face in public. That’s okay; if I had to eat crow, I would want one of Tom Douglas’s chefs to prepare it, because it would likely be locally sourced, organic, and entirely delicious. It’s fun to boast a little when a prediction falls completely flat, but we also have to remember that the important thing is that Douglas—and other Seattle restaurateurs—are seeing the light on this issue. It’s easy for business owners to threaten doom with scary, unsubstantiated comments when they face the prospect of paying their staff a little more. But for a business owner to admit that they were wrong when their claims don’t come true? That takes a lot of guts.

The thing is, raising the minimum wage isn’t about us vs. them. It’s about all of us. Sure, a few owners will take their unsourced cries of restaurant armageddon to the media, and sure some reporters will simply publish those threats without checking the facts. But in the end, once the minimum wage is raised, the fact is that more people will have more money to patronize those businesses. Restaurant workers in Seattle are now making enough money to eat at Tom Douglas restaurants. That’s good news for all of us.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.