A war is being waged in SeaTac over the minimum wage. Voters will decide Tuesday whether to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for some airport and hospitality workers with Proposition 1. Organizers then plan to bring the campaign to Seattle, where both mayoral candidates have already expressed support.
Supporters say it would help low-income people and families achieve a better life. That’s a bit simplistic. Poor people are not a monolithic group. I argued in a Wednesday blog post that it would devastate immigrant-owned businesses. (Our editorial board has also recommended a no vote in an editorial.)
James Shin is one of those immigrants. Shin, 64, owns the Quality Inn SeaTac. In 2011, he used his life savings to buy the 104-room hotel, and he would be required to pay his workers $15 an hour if Proposition 1 passes. It would, in fact, be a crippling financial blow to Shin.
He’s not the chief executive of a hotel chain. He owns one hotel. And he used to be poor.
Shin, a U.S. citizen, immigrated here from South Korea in 1975. He had a bachelor’s degree from a Korean university, but he spoke little English. His first job in the U.S.? Dishwasher. He made $2.25 an hour. In his next job he was a janitor. “When I moved to the U.S. I worked hard. Some people didn’t want to work weekends. I worked on weekends for overtime,” he said.
His next job was at Tektronix near Portland manufacturing electronics. He got promoted and two years later, he was earning $30,000 a year.
By gradually working his way up, Shin saved $15,000 to buy a convenience store with his wife. He ran it by himself seven days a week, from open to close. He slept three to four hours a night. Shin did that for 20 years.
In 2000, he sold the store and bought a business in Anchorage. He moved to Alaska while his wife and two sons remained in Redmond. Two years ago he wanted to be closer to his family. So he sold his business and bought the Quality Inn SeaTac. “This was a dream come true. An American dream,” Shin said.
He and his wife ran the hotel. He pleaded with his younger son, 29, to help. His son left a job at T-Mobile’s corporate office to become the hotel’s general manager.
In May, he said a buyer was interested in purchasing his hotel, and went as far as paying for an inspection and appraisal. The buyer withdrew the offer after finding out about Proposition 1.
Shin’s largest expense is labor. He’s done the math. If Proposition 1 passes, he says, “I have to file bankruptcy. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t make that much money.” If the property is returned to the bank, the bank would probably sell the property at a loss, which would negatively impact other property values in SeaTac.
Have you considered closing some rooms so you would fall below the 100-room hotel threshold in the proposition, I asked. If he closed some rooms, he would only be required to pay the 2014 state minimum wage of $9.32. Why would someone want to work at his hotel over the one that pays $15 an hour, he asked. “I don’t think I can find any labor. They want to go to the place paying $15 an hour.”
As someone who worked his way up out of a $2.25-an-hour job, Shin is flabbergasted that a worker could get a 63 percent raise if Proposition 1 passes.
“You want more money, why don’t you promote yourself — get more education, learn about the skills. Then (make) $11, $12 or $20” an hour, Shin said. “I think all our parents, they worked hard to educate their children to promote themselves gradually. A 63 percent wage jump up — that is not any story I ever heard of.”
Wouldn’t it have been easier if you had made $15 an hour in your first job as a dishwasher, I asked. Shin thought about it for a few minutes. “You wash dishes for $15 an hour, you can make it. But maybe hard to get a job though. At the time I didn’t speak English. I didn’t have any dishwashing experience,” he said. “But $15 an hour means they are looking for an experienced person.” People without college degrees and high school students might find themselves competing with experienced workers with more education, he said.
“I worked hard my entire life,” Shin said. “I educated my kids well. I did not steal any money. I’m a good citizen. Suddenly, the bombshell over my head.”
As I said in my Wednesday blog post, the challenges facing low-income people are about more than wages. It’s about the lack of affordable housing near job centers and the lack of a regional mass transit system to get people from areas where they can afford housing to job centers. The education system is supposed to give every child a chance to grow up and own a business. Instead, it’s leaving the poor students and students of color behind. It’s a collective failure of regional leadership. And SeaTac voters are considering making Shin pay the price.
Shin spent two decades working seven days a week from dawn until night so everyone else had a place to buy Doritos and beer. He saved up his money and put it into businesses he hoped would sustain him and his family. And SeaTac voters are about to light a bomb over his head.
Update 2:26 p.m. 11/4/2013
Proponents of Proposition 1 say that the Quality Inn SeaTac would not have to pay a $15 minimum wage because the hotel employs fewer than 30 workers and the proposition only applies to hotels with 30 workers or more.
If the proposition passes, Quality Inn SeaTac would be required to pay a minimum wage of $15 because Shin was planning to increase his staff to 30 in 2014. If approved, the proposition would take effect on Jan. 1, 2014.