St. Vincent de Paul weighs impact of Tacoma minimum wage measures

  • Written by Joanne Walby
  • Published in Local
Richard Ellis assists a customer in a St. Vincent de Paul donation yard in Tacoma. Photo: Charlie Thompson Richard Ellis assists a customer in a St. Vincent de Paul donation yard in Tacoma. Photo: Charlie Thompson

TACOMA – Measures on the Nov. 3 ballot to increase Tacoma’s minimum wage have put St. Vincent de Paul of Tacoma-Pierce County in a tough spot.

“We are absolutely in favor of increasing the minimum wage, but how it’s done is what makes a difference in our ability to sustain our business and the good work we do in our stores,” said Charlie Thompson, St. Vincent de Paul executive director.

One measure, proposed by citizens, would increase the minimum wage (now $9.47) to $15 per hour for all employees in Tacoma, effective Jan. 1, 2016. The other measure, proposed by the Tacoma City Council, would incrementally raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by January 2018. The citizen measure includes an exemption for businesses grossing less $300,000, but the council measure has no exemptions. Both measures include annual cost-of-living adjustments.

St. Vincent de Paul employs three salaried staff and 14 hourly workers at its two thrift stores in Pierce County, Thompson said. With gross revenue just over $400,000 in 2014, the nonprofit wouldn’t be eligible for an exemption under the $15-an-hour measure.

Increasing the minimum wage to $15 in January would add $100,000 to St. Vincent de Paul’s labor costs, Thompson said. If that happens, Thompson and St. Vincent’s board of directors would look at all options, including the possibility of reducing store hours. Thompson said he worries that would impact the agency’s revenue and lead to further reductions.

“The long-term concern is we would be in a spiral that doesn’t end well if it continues,” Thompson said.

Under the $12-an-hour proposal, almost all St. Vincent de Paul employees would get a pay increase, and wage differentials based on job responsibilities would still be possible. “The $20,000 cost is definitely something we can work with,” Thompson said.

Many of the agency’s full-time employees are recruited through its job-training programs, which work with people on public assistance or work release, or those recently released from prison. Called “program-volunteers,” they are required to work at least 20 hours a week in exchange for receiving public benefits rather than being paid by St. Vincent de Paul. In the past year, 955 program volunteers contributed 35,388 hours to St. Vincent de Paul operations, according to the agency’s annual report.

Richard Ellis was a program volunteer, on public assistance and working 20 hours a week at St. Vincent de Paul, before being hired as a full-time employee there a year ago.

Although Ellis would like a pay increase, he is wary of the impact.

“Sure, I want to make $15 an hour, but I also got to look at the long term if our wages go up,” he said. “It could affect business and I may lose my job.”

But Ellis said St. Vincent de Paul offers more than a wage — he is part of a community of people who serve. “Last year, I was laid off for a time, but I came in to volunteer anyhow,” Ellis said.