A Living Wage | Taking Care of People

Posted by James Helms on

Man looking at a dollar bill in from of espresso bar

My first job was working in a restaurant. I was a busboy and I was paid $3.35/hour, minimum wage for Oregon in 1989. After one full shift I remember a waitress named Jeannie give me my cut of tips for the day, $1.00. In retrospect, I am sure that I was not the most efficient worker but I was really short changed that day. Guess what one thing didn't motivate me to become more efficient the next day? The $1.00 tip. When we don't concern ourselves with what people need, it should be no surprise when people don't concern themselves with our or our businesses needs either. Living wage matters a lot to me and I think the biggest reason why is that I don't ever remember any one time in my life when any employer ever really cared about giving me a living wage. That really motivates me to change the narrative for others. 

If we don't care about paying a living wage we shouldn't be in business at all. Businesses should either continue to scale and pay a living wage with great benefits or they should close down the business. Not caring enough is not good business nor is it sustainable.

We launched the Rocky Butte Espresso Bar at the beginning of June, 2020, near the start of the mask mandates brought on by the pandemic. As a team we have discussed our bigger goals as a company, amongst them are a 30 hour work week that still pays a living wage for Portland, OR. This has also required me to extend quite a bit of grace to myself, it's about movement toward those goals, it is not about being immediately perfect at all of them. For instance, I was working over 90 hours a week for the first year...not healthy nor sustainable. My hours are much less now as Lily has expanded her responsibilities and we have started expanding our team at the espresso bar. At this point, I am still putting many more hours in than our goal and we are continuing to expand our teams hours to full time.

A helpful guide for determining our living wage goals has been the MIT Living Wage calculator, it is calculating living wage based on State and different living wages based on family size, marital status and number of working parents. As we settled into the data presented it became all too obvious that determining living wage wasn't as straight forward as we would have liked. Take for instance the fact that some of our staff were married, some had children, some lived with family...where would you even begin to determine what a living wage could be for a growing team? We had to start somewhere.

Our first pass at determining a living wage target was to recognize that minimum wage was drastically insufficient to live in Portland, OR for anyone on the team. The next realization as we drilled down into the data was that living wage was just enough to live in Portland, OR. It was not enough to flourish in Portland, OR. Especially in light of rising inflation over the last three years. Sheryl, Lily and I have had many conversations about what it is like to buy a first home with today's real property prices in our area. The challenge feels insurmountable. We don't want team members to have to save for 20 years in order to be able to afford a down payment on a starter home at today's prices, that is ludicrous. Our present day realities are really out of whack for true community flourishing. 

That means that our work to pay a living wage needs to be a starting place, not the ending place. We crunched some numbers that were presented on the MIT calculator and came up with an hourly pay range, adjusted for a 30 hour work week, that was between $19.12/hr and $25.27/hr. Not wanting to aim for the bottom, our first goal has been set at $25.00 per hour, some of our team are there but we are not fully there yet. As we continue to work rigorously on full scale and sustainability of our company, as we factor in additional benefits, this number will need to continue to expand. We feel like this is a good place to start though.

Over the last two years of operating our fledgling espresso bar, we are beginning to have a good handle on what to expect in terms of sales growth, costs, and profitability. As we move through re-opening and when we begin to confidently say "post-pandemic" we still have a lot to learn about the new normal. The living wage goals are a significant contributor to the decision to raise prices over the next couple of months. The 14 year old me that was paid $3.35/hr plus a $1.00 tip for a day's work would have some questions to ask of Jeannie. Namely, "are you considering what I need or deserve?" or "are you trying to motivate me to work for you tomorrow?" Not considering a living wage, or when businesses aim at the bottom of a pay range they are participating in an exploitive business that is doomed to fail over time. Businesses that do not consider the needs of their team should fail. 

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