By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Following SeaTac’s approval of a minimum wage at $15 an hour in November 2013, Seattle’s version of the law took effect on April 1, along with a law on administrative wage theft.
According to the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR), forty-one percent of low-wage workers in Seattle are Asian American/Pacific Islander. Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders also make up 13 percent of all workers in Seattle.
While the city’s new $15 an hour minimum wage is phased in over the next three to seven years – a slower process for small businesses – most low-wage workers will receive a minimum wage of at least $10 an hour, well above both the state minimum of $9.47 and the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.
Last December, the Chicago City Council approved a $13 an hour minimum wage by 2019.
Instead of paying a minimum wage, small business employers have the option of paying a minimum compensation (the sum of wage, tips, and health-care benefits) of $11 an hour to their workers.
“Having a minimum wage that is higher than the state minimum provides individuals, particularly those who are living in Seattle where our costs are higher, an opportunity to have their essential needs met,” said Patricia Lally, SOCR director.
“And so, this new wage takes one big step in the direction of creating more equity for people in that low-income range,” she added.
SOCR’s rules about paid sick and safe time are printed and available in Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese in addition to English. “We will also include not only those languages but also languages that are used by our East African community,” Lally said about the printing of rules on Seattle’s two new laws, which is expected to be complete in the next month.
The administrative wage theft law – starting April 1 – affects Seattle employers who fail to pay all wages and tips owed to an employee. Lally said, “If you are not being paid the amount that you agreed to, then you should contact the Office of Labor Standards, and you should visit our website, whatever is easiest for you.”
This law also prohibits employers from making threats to report an employee’s immigration status.
In 2015 the SOCR’s Office of Labor Standards will focus its efforts on outreach and education with the help of community organizations as well as on enforcement of the new laws.
Tam Nguyen, owner of Tamarind Tree restaurant in Seattle, says for his employees to get the $11 minimum compensation, he will have to make some adjustments, such as raising menu prices in the future and possibly opening a new restaurant in a city without a $15 an hour minimum wage law – Vancouver, British Columbia.
“They’re business friendly compared to Seattle,” he said about the Emerald City’s neighbor to the north,” he said. “Right now, we are trying to be streamlined in our operation first.”
He adds the new minimum-wage law prevents any future growth due to the increased costs of doing business.
Being streamlined means cutting the number of employees from over 50 to about 40 now. “Some of them, we have to let them go, and some of them, we have to cut back their hours,” said Nguyen, who is also president of the Seattle neighborhood organization Friends of Little Saigon.
“They decide this doesn’t make any sense for them to work anymore … for two or three hours of work.”
While they must work less hours, they must also do extra work along with their regular job duties. Tamarind Tree dishwashers “have to cut up the vegetables and cook rice and cook noodles,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen wants a partnership with the Office of Labor Standards so that he and other Asian American business owners “find a way to stay alive.”
“I want to stay in this community, to support my community,” Nguyen said. “I’m going to see (how it) turns out … because otherwise, when it doesn’t make sense, why would you be in a place that doesn’t make sense?” (end)
For more information about the minimum wage and administrative wage theft laws, go to www.seattle.gov/civilrights/labor-standards. For more information about Tamarind Tree, go to www.tamarindtreerestaurant.com.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.