Tacoma $12 or $15 minimum wage vote puts nonprofits in bind

Nonprofit groups who operate in Tacoma are keeping a wary eye on the competing minimum wage initiatives on Tacoma’s ballot next month.

Voters face a choice of whether to raise the minimum wage in Tacoma, and if so, by how much: $12 over two years, or $15 immediately.

The public vote has put nonprofit leaders in a bind.

“Whenever we can, we try to speak up for livable wages,” said Mike Yoder, executive director of Associated Ministries, which organizes church congregations to serve the community. Yoder said his organization has a livable wage scale that puts most of its 30 employees in the $14 range already.

However, the group isn’t taking a position on either the $12 or $15 minimum wage.

“We are trying to be agnostic,” Yoder said, though as a nonprofit leader he has concerns about the $15 measure.

The News Tribune reached out to a dozen nonprofits who either are based in or do work in Tacoma. Some declined to discuss the measures at all. Of those who took a position, none are in favor of the $15 measure. Many of them pay their employees at least $12 an hour already, so the measure raising the wage floor to $12 would not affect them.

The nonprofit leaders who agreed to discuss the measures said living on the current minimum wage is indeed difficult, and the wage should be higher. But the speed of the $15 measure troubles them.

Yoder said a jump from the current wage floor of $9.47 an hour to $15 an hour could be practically impossible for many small nonprofits, which stretch every dollar to serve their community. It puts them in “an almost untenable position,” he said.

Other leaders were irked about the vagueness on how the $15 wage would apply to employees who don’t work in Tacoma all the time.

The Emergency Food Network, based in Lakewood, makes pick-ups and deliveries inside Tacoma each day. It has 16 employees, many of whom earn between $12 and $15 an hour, executive director Helen McGovern-Pilant said.

If her organization must invest in a new record-keeping system to manage a $15-an-hour wage while her drivers are in Tacoma, she said she’ll stop driving into Tacoma. Food banks and other organizations EFN serves in Tacoma would have to come pick the food up instead.

“I can’t spend any of the money I can spend on food on bureaucracy. I just won’t,” she said.

MultiCare Health System, the city’s largest private employer and a nonprofit, has no employees who make less than $12 an hour, spokeswoman Marce Edwards said. Only 153 employees of the company’s 6,082 in the city — about 2.5 percent — make less than $15 an hour, she said. MultiCare hasn’t “discussed the issue as an organization,” she said.

CHI Franciscan Health, Tacoma’s second-largest private employer and also a nonprofit, declined to provide any figures about whether either wage increase would affect it. In a statement, Franciscan said it “will abide by the will of the voters and meet the standards of either initiative should they be approved.”

Goodwill of the Olympics and Rainier Region said the $12 measure was “more manageable,” but it also declined to provide specifics on how either increase would affect operations. “To protect our position in the thrift industry, we don’t disclose employee salary structure or financial projections,” spokesman George White said via email.

In a statement, Goodwill president and CEO Terry Hayes predicted Tacoma businesses would have to increase prices to cover the wage hike, and said Goodwill stores would be no different.

Hayes also said she’s worried a jump to $15 an hour will reduce the number of minimum-wage jobs overall. That fear was reflected by other nonprofit leaders who place people in entry-level jobs. Liz Dunbar of the Tacoma Community House said while her clients would benefit from a higher hourly wage, minimum-wage jobs also would become more competitive.

“People who have higher skills … might have ignored those jobs before,” she said, “and therefore our clients had access to those jobs.”

At the United Way of Pierce County, chief financial officer Pete Grignon said a $12 increase would be negligible, but a $15 increase would affect the agency’s South Sound 2-1-1 program. That program is free to callers who need help with a variety of issues including housing problems, a lack of food and clothing, and mental health.

South Sound 2-1-1 has four full-time employees, Grignon said, and grant funding covers the wages of two of them. The other two are students participating through work-study, he said. Raising the minimum wage to $15 would increase the cost of 2-1-1 from $6,000-$10,000 a year.

Arts organizations are watching, too. David Fischer, executive director of the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, said its entry level wage is $10.75 an hour. Between 15 and 20 of the center’s 75 employees make under $15, he said.

A $15 increase immediately “would cripple us,” he said. “We don’t know how we would manage that.”

Staff levels are already the minimum required to keep the doors open, Fischer said, so he doesn’t foresee layoffs. The center would have to raise rental rates for other nonprofit arts groups like the symphony and the ballet.

Ticket prices also would increase. Fischer said that is upsetting, because the center works hard to keep entry-level ticket prices between $8 and $19 so as many people as possible can afford to attend events.

Sarah Morken, a lead organizer with 15 Now Tacoma, was unmoved by the nonprofits’ concerns. An increase in the minimum wage will help the very people many nonprofit organizations serve, she said.

“One of the reasons they need services is that they’re poor,” she said.

Morken also dismissed the record-keeping concerns raised by the Emergency Food Network’s McGovern-Pilant.

“I would suggest that she get Excel,” Morken said. “Excel spreadsheets are an efficient way to keep track of these things like that and it’s not expensive.”

McGovern-Pilant was blunt as well, but about the process that led to a vote by the general public: The City Council should have been the ones who enacted a law that has such wide-ranging effects on businesses.

“It ended up this way because the council wouldn’t make a decision,” said McGovern-Pilant, a former Lakewood city councilwoman. “I understand getting community input, but you’re elected to make the tough decisions.”

Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546