Having already lost the local debate on the minimum wage in general, and on $15 in particular, the business interests on Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee have largely adopted a strategy of attempting to redefine the meaning of the word “wage” itself. The restaurant industry has long pined for a “tip credit” (or “tip penalty” from the perspective of workers) in which tips are counted towards meeting the minimum wage. But that wouldn’t lower the labor costs of businesses that rely on non-tipped employees, and so a strong push is being made to adopt the more sweeping notion of “total compensation.”
I’ll delve more deeply into the tip penalty debate in a subsequent post, but for the moment I want to focus on total compensation, which in addition to tips, would count the cost of providing health insurance, sick leave, vacation leave, 401K matches, and other non-cash benefits toward the employer’s requirement to pay a minimum $15 an hour wage. And to better understand the impact of adopting a $15 an hour total compensation minimum wage, it is useful to start with a real-life example:
Let’s say you are a dishwasher working full-time at a midrange Seattle restaurant, earning $10.50 an hour plus $3 an hour in pooled or shared tips. You’re taking home the equivalent of $13.50 an hour, plus benefits. I guess there are worse jobs, but it’s hardly a living wage.
Now let’s say we pass a $15 total compensation minimum wage.
Based on the monthly price I’ve been quoted for COBRA, minus my share of the premium that had been deducted from my paychecks, I can estimate that I had cost The Stranger about $1.60 an hour for our so-so medical and dental coverage—let’s assume that’s typical for a restaurant. Then there’s a shift meal, with a retail price of $12.00, or another $1.50 an hour over the course of an 8 hour shift. Add two weeks vacation for another $0.40 an hour. Paid sick leave, that’s another $0.20 an hour still. I’m sure there are other benefits I’m missing, but this is more than enough to make my point. That’s already $3.70 an hour in benefits just there.
So… $10.50 an hour in wages, plus $3 an hour in tips, plus $3.70 an hour in benefits, and after our wonderful new $15 minimum wage ordinance passes, you’ll magically be making $17.20 an hour! That’s great! Except your take-home pay won’t increase a penny. In fact, some unscrupulous employers may seize this as an opportunity to actually lower wages. Hooray for total compensation!
Of course, not all employers are going to be dicks about it. But in this imbalanced labor market, some will. Wage and tip theft are already rampant. So if you don’t think that some employers are going to be eager to creatively use a $15 total compensation minimum wage as an opportunity to cut labor costs, then you don’t know fuck about capitalism. (Or human nature.)
But wait—it gets even worse.
Your $15 minimum wage would be indexed to inflation, but the cost of one of your biggest benefits—health insurance—will inflate at many times that rate. Health care inflation is currently at a historic low of about 6.5 percent, but the Consumer Price Index is only expected to rise about 1.75 percent during 2014. That means that the costs of your benefits will rise significantly faster than the putative minimum wage, pushing the effective wage floor ever lower in inflation adjusted dollars over time. For example, after five years at the inflation rates above, the official minimum wage would rise about 9 percent to $16.36 an hour, while the cost of your dishwasher benefits will have gone up about 21 percent to $4.48 an hour, bringing your official total hourly compensation to $17.98—again, without raising your take-home pay a single penny!
Total compensation effectively shifts the burden of healthcare inflation from the employer, entirely onto the employee. And as benefits make up an increasingly larger percentage of total compensation, real take-home wages will steadily fall. For low-wage full-time workers, a total compensation minimum wage would be a formula for expanding the income gap, not closing it.
Admittedly, the impact on part-time workers is different. Lacking the cost of benefits to subtract from total compensation, low-wage part-timers could see their effective wage floor rise substantially. This in turn would remove from employers some of the economic incentive they currently have to shift low-wage full-time work to part-time work. So that’s one possible positive impact of total compensation.
But as a policy for raising the effective incomes of all low-wage workers—which is what the $15 minimum wage movement is presumably about—a total compensation minimum wage miserably fails. It would provide little or no immediate wage hike to most full-time workers while eroding the effective wage floor over time. But most importantly, it would be a lie. Mayor Murray and other leaders have promised voters $15, but total compensation only gets to that number by redefining the meaning of the word “wage.”
And that would not be a promise fulfilled.