Why A Seattle Restaurant Owner Is Against 'Living Wage' Laws

Fast food workers across the country have been protesting for higher pay. And in many cities, there are movements to create "living wage" laws. Renee Montagne talks to Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas about how he decided to raise wages for his dishwashers and cooks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

So let's get back to the home of Starbucks - Seattle. There, even as fast food workers have been protesting for higher pay, what they call a living wage in many cities, one of Seattle's best known restaurant owners has just upped the pay of his workers on his own.

Tom Douglas owns 14 restaurants and bakeries in Seattle. And even though he resents the idea of a law telling him how much to pay his workers, Douglas raised the pay for hundreds of his dishwashers and cooks. He joined us to talk more about why.

Thank you for joining us.

TOM DOUGLAS: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: OK. So a cook would now go from what to what?

: Well, a cook, you know, a starting wage for a cook was between $12 and $13 an hour, depending on experience. And now the base wage for a cook is $15 an hour. After a year, it's going to go up to another base line. The goal for me is to create a merit system that is more reflective of the value of what being a chef is. I'm just trying to, in my own way, justify a better living for them.

MONTAGNE: Now it sounds altruistic - although, there's a business calculation to keeping workers happy. Theoretically, they're more productive, the turnover is less, that sort of thing. What though, for you, is the business calculation?

: Well, I've always wanted to be the best place to work in town. And sometimes that is just being a good boss, just being nice to people. Other times, I couldn't have afforded to do the dollar amounts that I'm doing now. We're literally committing one-third of our profits to this. But, you know, I'm 25 years in. I feel like now I own my car, you know, I own my house, I own my farm. Now, instead of buying more toys, I just feel like this is the way I want to pay back a bit of the incredible luck that I've had over the years, and the incredible hard work that many, many, many people have put in over the years.

MONTAGNE: How did your workers react to this pay raise on the first of the month?

: Well, it's been across the board from some people didn't even noticed - which I kind of loved. Other people have sent me cards. And then most of the notice came through my chef team, and they told me some stories about workers with tears in their eyes and that this is going to change their life. And you know who was against this the most in the beginning was the chefs. And it was because, you know, I worked through that system, I worked really hard and I had to fight my way to the top. And once the chefs kind of got a hold of the...

MONTAGNE: Well, you paid your dues.

: Yeah. You paid your dues. Exactly. And frankly, this is a profession and, you know, I want people to stay longer than just paying their dues and then moving on.

MONTAGNE: Were you at all motivated by the fact that there's a movement in a city near to Seattle to create what's known as a living wage law that is generally about $15 an hour? Was that part of your thinking here?

: Not even for a second. I was planning on doing this a few years ago. You know, if I were to try and do what I'm doing now when I first started out 24 years ago, I would be bankrupt. I couldn't have done it. So I think there is a time and place for this and I think there is a sense that in my mind that, you know, you have to be the business owner that wants to do it. I'm not a big believer in the whole government mandate.

MONTAGNE: But in other words, you feel it's the right time for you to do this and you think it's the right thing to do. But you would not support laws that would require other companies or other businesses to do essentially what you have just done?

: I think $15 an hour probably would be healthy for the economy. The more you put dollars into people's hands to be spent, I'm sure it probably would be healthy for the economy. I just don't believe in that kind of structure. You know, they're having sit-ins in Seattle right now for higher minimum wage for fast food joints. You know, say, where does it all stop? I would love to see McDonald's pay more money. I think that they complain that they can't afford to is not true. I just can't believe how many people are close to the food bank line, and my team shouldn't be there that close either. So I can't speak for every other company, but I think it's a personal decision. It's also a time in your life decision and I don't think there necessarily needs to be laws. I think that people need to stand up with their backbone and not go to places where they feel like the workers aren't taken care of.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

: OK. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Tom Douglas, who owns several restaurants and bakeries in Seattle. And he has just upped the pay this month of his chefs and cooks and hundreds of other workers.

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