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Originally published November 12, 2013 at 5:31 PM | Page modified November 12, 2013 at 5:45 PM

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$15 minimum wage for Seattle is a crude tool to address inequity

The $15 minimum wage campaign presumes poor people are a monolithic group who all want to work those jobs for the rest of their lives, writes columnist Sharon Pian Chan.

Times editorial columnist

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Yen Lam-Steward owns Lam’s Seafood Market, an Asian grocery store that her immigrant parents opened 22 years ago in the Chinatown International District. If the city of Seattle imposed a $15 minimum wage, “this would literally be devastating,” she said.

“I would consider closing or even moving to another city or even another state, like Texas where they are more business friendly,” Lam-Steward, 34, said. “If Seattle really wants to be anti-business and drive all the businesses out, go ahead and pass this law.”

The outcome of SeaTac’s Nov. 5 Proposition 1 to raise the 2014 minimum wage from $9.32 to $15 an hour for some airport and hospitality workers remains too close to call. But the uncertainty has not stopped supporters from bringing the campaign to Seattle. Seattle Mayor-elect Ed Murray supports a $15 wage and wants to convene a committee to discuss the issue.

Please let this discussion die a Seattle death by committee.

Supporters of the $15 wage say it would help low-income people and families. That presumes poor people are a monolithic group, all of whom want to work those jobs for the rest of their lives.

Many people who now make a minimum wage dream of owning their own business, whether it’s a restaurant, a grocery store or Google. Raising the minimum wage dims their chances of ever owning a business.

The reluctance of businesses to expand in the current economy is already limiting opportunities for people to leave their minimum-wage jobs for higher-paying ones. A higher minimum wage would limit job growth.

If Lam-Steward’s business were affected, a $15 minimum wage would force her to cut her staff of 40 and raise prices 5 to 10 percent. Her customers are more price sensitive than most. Many of Lam’s shoppers, 30 to 40 percent, use food stamps.

“Already it’s been difficult with other competitors coming into the state like Ranch 99, H Mart, the big-box [Asian] stores that are outside of Seattle,” she said.

How about if the higher minimum wage only applied to big-box stores in Seattle? “I don’t think it would be fair,” Lam-Steward said. “A lot of them are giving medical insurance.”

James Shin, 64, used his life savings to buy the Quality Inn SeaTac in 2011. When he bought the 104-room hotel, Shin said, “This was a dream come true. An American dream.” He had planned to increase his staff to 30 in 2014 to meet demand. At that staff level, he would be required to pay his workers $15 an hour under Proposition 1, which affects hotels with 100 or more rooms and 30 or more workers.

He’s not the chief executive of a hotel chain. He owns one hotel. And he used to be poor.

When Shin, now a U.S. citizen, immigrated here from South Korea in 1975, he had a bachelor’s degree, but spoke little English. His first job in the U.S.? Dishwasher. He made $2.25 an hour. In his next job, he was a janitor.

By working his way up, Shin saved $15,000 to buy a convenience store with his wife. He ran it by himself seven days a week, from open to close. For 20 years, he slept three to four hours a night.

Shin is flabbergasted that a worker could get a 63 percent raise if Proposition 1 passes.

“You want more money, why don’t you promote yourself — get more education, learn about the skills? Then [make] $11, $12 or $20” an hour, Shin said. “I think all our parents, they worked hard to educate their children to promote themselves gradually. A 63 percent wage jump up — that is not any story I ever heard of.”

In May, a buyer was interested in buying his hotel and paid for an inspection and appraisal. The buyer withdrew the offer after hearing about the minimum-wage initiative.

Wouldn’t it have been easier if you had made $15 an hour in your first job as a dishwasher, I asked Shin. He thought about it for a few minutes. “You wash dishes for $15 an hour, you can make it. But maybe hard to get a job though. At the time I didn’t speak English. I didn’t have any dishwashing experience,” he said.

Raising the minimum wage is a crude tool to treat the devastating disease of inequity. Cancer can’t be cured by bloodletting.

Minimum-wage earners can't afford food and shelter in Seattle because of the high cost of living. Affordable housing has become scarce in Seattle. Unlike Washington, D.C., or San Francisco, Seattle lacks a regional mass-transit system sufficient to get lots of people from where they can afford housing to job centers.

The education system is supposed to give every child a chance to grow up and own a business. Instead, it’s leaving the poor students and students of color behind. It’s a collective failure of regional leadership. Small-business owners like Shin and Lam-Steward shouldn’t be forced to pay the price.

Sharon Pian Chan's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is On Twitter @sharonpianchan

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