Elections

The barstool view on Tacoma’s minimum-wage debate

Both ideas before Tacoma voters for raising the city minimum wage from the state’s $9.47 an hour to $12 or $15 are tough sells in Billy B’s Pub & Grub, a $3-a-beer tavern on a stretch of South 56th Street pocked with empty shopfronts.

The day and night shift bartenders, both of whom make above $15 an hour including tips, worry forcing their base wages up will threaten the stability of this vibrant taproom in a hardscrabble side of town.

The cook, who would receive a raise at two of his three jobs, including this one, says small businesses ought not be forced to pay every employee that highly.

Customers on a recent afternoon said they come for cheap drinks and the camaraderie of a local crowd that runs the gamut from truck drivers to college professors. Eliminate one aspect and the other could scatter, they feared.

The bar owner, Dave Peluso, brought in his accountant to go over the hard numbers with the city’s sample ballot opened before him on a bar table.

His establishment, which employs six, sometimes seven, would be forced to abide by either wage hike if it passes Tuesday, same as a large corporation. The $15 an hour minimum-wage proposal would affect businesses with more than $300,000 in annual revenues.

Billy B’s gross revenues come in modestly over that amount. Peluso asked to keep the exact figure out of the newspaper. The accountant, Margaret Clarkson, 81, said that for a tavern, that threshold amount could equate to $50,000 net, under tight management.

The $12 an hour minimum, if passed, would affect all businesses. For Peluso, who is 59, it would add about $25,000 a year to his costs. He grimaced and clutched his glasses while he explained his dilemma.

“I am not against people making a livable wage. I am not against that,” he said. “... I grew up around here. I see how people struggle.”

He added that success for either minimum-wage proposal could push him toward selling his bar sooner than he had planned. The lower would allow him to keep afloat a few months while he gauged its effects, he said.

“I can’t vote for 15,” he said. “I may vote for 12, to be honest with you, if it’s done right. It’s still a lot, a lot of money.”

Ideally for his business, Peluso said, wage thresholds would take into account employees’ reported tips, as is done in most other states. But Washington’s one-size-fits-all minimum wage and the proposals to boost it for Tacoma put Billy B’s in a narrow place.

In Seattle and elsewhere, some restaurants have eliminated tipping and raised menu prices to give staff higher hourly pay. This would not seem an easy adjustment for a scrappy neighborhood cash-on-the-counter bar. Here, a sign advertises $1 Jell-O shots and customers express sensitivity to even incremental price shifts.

“We went up 50 cents and heard a lot of” complaints, said Hannah Tillman, 31, a night-shift bartender at Billy B’s. She is a New York state native — where tipped employees get a lower minimum wage — and has worked at Billy B’s for two and a half years. Even on a slow night, her tips come in at roughly double her hourly pay, she reported.

She is disinclined to support the ballot measures, even though she would profit.

“I could understand it if our cooks would get paid that much, but I really shouldn’t,” Tillman said.

Billy B’s, with a comfortable capacity of perhaps three dozen people, stands as a neighborhood outpost now in a stretch of town where such things can be rare finds.

“When you look at Tacoma, you got to look at the big picture,” Peluso said. “There’s a lot of people that live on the south side of 38th Street.”

His bar shares a parking lot with the Taller Hernandez mechanic shop and peers across South 56th Street at a store with bars on every window.

Both of the taverns on the next block shut down in recent months. One, the M Street Ale House, left behind a door sign thanking patrons for 75 years of business. A man cleaning it out Wednesday blamed landlord issues.

The building next to Billy B’s has had wood stacked in its front window for years.

“We’re a small, happy place that people can come to,” Peluso said, “in a neighborhood that’s not that safe.”

He bought the building as an investment in 2010 — “It was pretty much a drug and thug bar,” he said — then spent six months renovating it. The bar has been a steady employer ever since.

Peluso works in regional sales for beverage companies and is between positions, which he attributes to a merger in the industry. If the finances get too tight at Billy B’s, his choices amount to selling the bar or shutting it down as still another vacancy on his street, since he doesn’t want to displace employees to take up their jobs himself.

“I’m gonna be 60,” he said. “I’m not a bartender. I’m not the cook. I’m just a guy who bought the building as an investment.”

Raising prices straightaway did not feel like a sound proposition to the tavern owner.

“In this neighborhood, I don’t think you’re going to get $5 for a pint of beer like you get in the North End,” Peluso said.

He allowed his bartenders and cook to be interviewed unsupervised during their work Wednesday afternoon and told them there would be no retribution for their comments.

In the kitchen, Justin Buffone, 40, took a moment to consider the minimum-wage proposals while ground beef sizzled on a griddle for happy-hour pizzas.

Buffone works three jobs — two at bars, one at a marina — for a total of 60 hours some weeks. His pay in a life of varied work has ranged from $6.25 an hour in a Texas paint factory to more than $25 an hour in Alaska. He said he grasps fully the importance of a meaningful living wage, though he disagrees philosophically with the way the issue has come to voters.

“I don’t believe all of a sudden everybody needs to get $15 an hour,” he said, “because everybody’s not worth $15 an hour at their jobs.”

On the other side of the bar, Billy B’s afternoon crowd reported likewise nonplussed attitudes about the higher minimum wage proposals.

“Of the two, I’ll say the 12,” said Eddie Harris, 46, a truck driver from Renton who stops into Billy B’s when a haul ends in the South Sound area. “The $15 minimum, you might come in here and a drink could be $20.”

Over at a side table beneath the glowing neon of a Heineken sign, Darin and Don Ducolon said Billy B’s losing its cheap-as-a-dive, friendly-as-a-family atmosphere could run them off.

They are twins, 50, and come to the tavern daily after finishing up at their construction business to talk shop, examine finances on their iPads and sip drinks before heading home. (Though they share this ritual, the brothers drink differently: Darin is a rum man, Don prefers bourbon).

The minimum wage won’t affect their shop, both said, because they are the only permanent employees. When they hire help, they need skilled workers who can require up to $50 an hour for their expertise with heating or plumbing projects.

If a minimum-wage hike adds expense to this habit, Darin said he’d be inclined to take the bar — and the fellowship of other contractors among its regulars, which sometimes brings shared business — out of his everyday life.

“I’ll buy a bottle at the store and do the drinking at home,” he said. “My wife would be happier. I’d get more done around the house.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693

derrick.nunnally@thenewstribune.com

@dcnunnally

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