With the city of Los Angeles set to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, much of the drama surrounding the pay increase will now shift to nearby municipalities. Los Angeles County and several surrounding cities are already debating a hike, with supporters touting the benefits to workers and communities even as opponents predict major job losses and business flight.
The public conversation around lifting the minimum wage is both familiar and distressing. We have come to accept a narrative that pits the interests of low-wage workers and their families against those of business and the economic climate.
But what if this narrative is more myth than fact? What if there were actually a convergence between the interests of workers at the bottom of the economic ladder and businesses?
This counternarrative is actually starting to gain some traction among visionary business leaders who understand that low wages are hurting our consumer-driven economy – and the businesses that depend on it. The argument that raising wages is essential not only for workers but for business growth has been embraced by a growing contingent of dissenters who reject the conventional wisdom that sees any mandated pay increases as a threat to our market economy.
On the national level, groups like Businesses for a Fair Minimum Wage and Patriotic Millionaires have publicly endorsed minimum-wage hikes. So have high-profile figures such as Container Store Chief Executive Kip Tindell, the new head of the National Retail Federation.
In Los Angeles, hundreds of businesses backed last year’s minimum-wage increase for hotel workers, and many more supported the recent push for a citywide pay hike. Early endorsers included Eli Broad and Rick Caruso.
The shifting attitudes about raising the minimum wage among business leaders reflect growing alarm over an economy that has largely failed for the past three decades to reverse stagnating wages even as the cost of living has risen dramatically. In Los Angeles, depressed wages and escalating housing costs have been cited as a key reason for the region’s spike in homelessness. Seen through a business lens, this trend means that people who once could afford to rent homes and buy goods and services are now struggling mightily, converted from consumers to social service dependents.
Some business leaders are also starting to point out another cost of the low-wage economy: an unequal playing field for businesses that provide decent wages and benefits. Minimum-wage increases are one of the most effective ways of leveling the field for employers that provide decent compensation of their own accord. Conversely, the idea that providing good wages and benefits inevitably hurts the bottom line is increasingly being challenged, even by mainstream media. As Fortune magazine wrote last year, “Now some (employers) are realizing that high-road employment practices are what help produce the returns shareholders expect.”
Significant factors in this shift are the attitude of millennials and how they spend their consumer dollars. This generation cares about the social consequences of how companies conduct themselves, according to a spate of new research. USA Today reports that “some 47 percent of consumers say they buy, every month, at least one brand that supports a good cause. … That’s a 47 percent increase from 2010. What’s more, some 72 percent of consumers say they would recommend a brand that supports a good cause – a 38 percent increase in two years.” The implications of these findings are huge for businesses that want to appeal to a younger demographic.
As this mind-set starts to take hold, businesses will begin to act on the great marketing potential of providing good jobs. In a world where more and more consumers want to direct their buying power toward companies that have a social conscience, the upside of treating employees well can be considerable. We might be moving toward a time when Walmart’s famous “Always Low Prices” slogan gives way to something more inspiring: “Always Fair Wages.”
In the interim, businesses in our region will need to adjust to a new reality: higher minimum wages in more and more cities. Shortsighted employers will continue to fight wage hikes, but let’s hope we see a rising tide of business leaders embracing the counternarrative that good wages are good for business. We should not just settle for the minimum.
Cherri Senders is a longtime L.A.-area businesswoman and founder and publisher of Labor 411, a consumer guide to goods and services businesses that treat their employees fairly with good wages, benefits and working conditions.
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