Local Indie Biz Story #4: I Am Your Barista

I’m your barista. I hand you a steaming hot cup of life four mornings a week, you greet me with a languid smile and slip an extra dollar in my tip jar. Some days, those dollars are like manna from heaven, because the rent and the student loan payments and the cards and the bills are all due. And I think I have that toothache again…

So I should leap and applaud the suggestion of a 60% minimum wage increase, right? I am the worker! My wages are not sufficient for the current cost of living, my friends and co-workers are in a similar or worse situation. We should all be clamoring for our red T-shirts and posters, to stand up for recognition of our integrity and value! But as I’m rising to my feet to defend the latter, I am feeling deep concern and trepidation about what this proposed legislation could mean for workers, for my customers, for my friends, and for me.

I work for a small business, and I know how devastating a huge minimum wage hike would be for us. I can show you the faces of the two dozen employees who would likely have their hours severely cut or lose their jobs. I can also tell you that such a loss would not be the result of profit-hungry owners pilfering from their employees, or miserly proprietors refusing to sacrifice profits. This is a matter of numbers, of businesses like the one employing me having too small of margins to be able to sustainably absorb the impact of this proposed wage legislation.

This is especially unfortunate because small business owners have a unique capacity to be empathetic and to have the motivation to support their employees. This has been true in my own experiences working for several small businesses. They are the backbone of local industry. Yet they have been severely underrepresented and even ignored in the language of the 15 Now campaign, mentioned mostly as something behind which “big business” is trying to hide. There are legitimate concerns being voiced by the community of small businesses, and that they are being dismissed is very troubling to me. As an employee, if small business in Seattle suffers, I suffer. My community suffers. My friends and their families suffer. This eclectic community of mine encompasses a wide variety of workers and proprietors, and we need the conversation around wage legislation to be equally inclusive.

As it stands, the rhetoric of the 15 Now movement has set up a dangerous dichotomy. Minimum wage workers are lumped together on one extreme, set up against the diabolical big businesses on the other. These divisions are not only inaccurate, they also lead to potentially detrimental conclusions.

Minimum- and low-wage workers are comprised of anyone from high school and college students, to single independents, to parents, grandparents, and more. Some struggle to support a family or live on their own, and some live communally with other workers. Some receive financial assistance from the government or private sources. Some work two or more jobs. I could go on, but the plain fact is that talking about minimum- and low-wage workers as if they are all in the same position and share the same needs is misleading, and pursuing one monetary solution as if it will benefit them all is risky oversimplification.

Likewise, holding up big business as the enemy effectively demonizes businesses in general because the vast middle ground is left undefined and unrecognized. Just as workers represent a variety of life situations, so does “business” include organizations of varying size, purpose, ethics, and needs. I am very skeptical of drawing lines in the sand between minimum- and low-wage workers and big business, because such lines are not true to our world. The dichotomy is false, and if we are to come up with fruitful, pragmatic solutions that will benefit the most people, our conversations must start from an environment of understanding and recognition rather than a charged, polarizing milieu.

I want to have this conversation, because alongside my skepticism and worry, I strongly feel that there is a vital issue at stake. The plight of minimum- and low-wage workers is not, as I see it, purely monetary. The problems workers face are systemic, they are complex, and they must be addressed carefully and holistically, not with a one-solution-fits-all approach. I want to see ALL citizens participate in this conversation, because we will ALL be affected by a decision about wage legislation of this magnitude.

I want to be heard as a worker, as a supporter of small business, as a woman, as a citizen. As your barista.