As an employee of the Port Townsend Safeway, Sherri Howard wants folks to know that minimum-wage jobs are not just for kids.
Howard enjoys Safeway, where she’s worked since November 2015, and where she spends a number of her off-hours. She’s proud of her recent promotion, which moved her from an entry-level position to the produce department.
More importantly, Howard is proud of the more than two decades she’s spent working in retail. While she might not have gone to college, it’s given her more time with her husband of 37 years, as well as her three children, now ages 34, 32 and 23, whom she raised.
Howard understands that choosing to be a full-time mom meant choosing to make sacrifices. Her husband owns his own company, but he also works a second job to make ends meet. They share their house with other family members. And when the store that had employed Howard for 14 years closed, she found herself struggling to find employment.
“There’s not a lot of jobs around here,” Howard said. “When I could find work again, it was pushing shopping carts and lifting heavy bags, which is hard work for an old person.”
Howard is grateful to be working, and understands that many of the demands of her job are geared toward younger employees, but she would point out that older employees are often shouldering more financial responsibilities.
“If you’re living at home with your parents, you might not have to worry about taking a sick day,” Howard said. “When I take a sick day, it’s because I have to take a sick day, because that’s a big deal for my entire month. We’ve already had a slow couple of months. I might be working 25 hours one week and 14 hours the next. Just a little bump can make a huge difference.”
To that end, the state’s increase in the hourly minimum wage to $11, effective Jan. 1, 2017, makes a difference. Howard is looking forward to finally paying off the mattress she and her husband bought, plus maybe having movie date nights at The Rose Theatre every once in a while, rather than just on their couch.
“I never had a high-paying career,” Howard said. “Being mom was my career. With the priorities I had, this was the life I was dealt.”
One aspect of her Safeway job that she appreciates, as the granddaughter of a union leader, is that she’s finally got a union job.
“I hear businesses saying they might have to raise their prices a little more,” Howard said. “Because of this [minimum wage] raise, I’ll be spending a little more, and I’ll be spending it here in the community.”
UNION BOOSTS WAGE
Tom Geiger is the communications director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, which is both Howard’s union and the largest private-sector union in Washington state.
He touted the Jan. 1 increase of 16.15 percent, from $9.47 per hour in 2016 to $11 per hour in 2017, as making potentially significant changes possible in the lives of workers like Howard.
“It can be hard to imagine, if you’re not at or near the minimum wage yourself, but as little as $1.50 more per hour can mean the difference between living with a friend, or in an apartment, versus having your own place,” Geiger said. “In reality, most of these pay increases are paid right back into the workers’ communities. They spend it right away, which helps local businesses and, most of the time, grows the economy.”
Although some businesses have cited a need to increase their prices, Geiger believes the long-term trend will see more money circulating through the market.
Geiger also noted that UFCW Local 21 is responding to the minimum-wage increase by adding its own raises, commensurate with the raises that union workers had already received above the previous minimum wage.
He pointed to Howard’s previous wage of $9.67 an hour as an example, since it was two 10-cent increments above the old minimum wage, which would add up to $11.20 now.
“Our contract has a requirement of at least 10 cents above minimum wage,” Geiger said. “She’s also on the second step on our wage scale, so she gets an additional 10 cents, because of our 10-cent minimum between each of the steps.”
According to Geiger, this measure was intended to respect the achievements of those workers who had managed to gain raises above minimum wage over the years.
“We didn’t just want to raise people up who were at the very bottom,” Geiger said. “These people have put in enough time that they shouldn’t be all on the same entry level again.”
CHAMBER WEIGHS IN
Magdalene Adenau, strategic director for the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, conducted a survey for The Leader, inviting business community members to weigh in on the minimum wage increase.
The respondents represented a variety of small businesses, including restaurants and bars, retail stores, medical practices, professional services, farms, independent contractors and at least one nonprofit organization working with low-income residents.
Half of the respondents own businesses in Port Townsend, while the other half own businesses in the rest of the county, including Quilcene, Port Hadlock and Chimacum.
“The responses that we received were incredibly thoughtful and heartfelt, with many acknowledging the complexity of this issue and the possible ripple effects of both positive and negative that could result,” said Adenau, who noted that 57 percent of the respondents “were strongly in favor” of the minimum wage increase, while 29 percent were “strongly opposed” and 14 percent were “somewhere in the middle.”
Those who favored the increase cited the need to pay service and retail employees enough to be able to live in the same community where they work.
“Several pointed out that, if we as a community desire to have young families stay here, then this is a step in the right direction, given the options available,” Adenau said. “Others broadened that to say they believed it would have a positive ripple effect on the local economy a whole.”
One restaurateur echoed Howard and Geiger, telling Adenau that the “service workers, retail employees, cashiers and entry-level laborers of our community” are “generally the demographic who spend the majority of their dollars locally,” and as such, “the additional buying power and stability for young families” will “result in much more economic satisfaction for those who need it most, and that’s what will truly increase local consumer confidence.”
On the other hand, those who opposed the increase told the chamber they felt the negative impacts outweighed the positives. This group included several owners of agricultural businesses, who collectively expressed frustration at what they see as a lack of understanding, that the agricultural industry operates under different conditions from the service and retail industries.
“Taken together, these ideas represent a complex reaction to a complex problem,” Adenau said. “We as a rural chamber serve a diverse population of member businesses. The complexity of their responses is reflected in the complexity of our business community as a whole.”