Mandatory Minimums

Last weekend, S.F. raised the minimum wage by a buck. In response, some retailers have cut shifts, while others are getting creative.

People carry green and yellow balloons during a rally celebrating the increase of minimum wage to $14. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Back in in 2014, San Francisco residents voted in favor of Proposition J, a ballot initiative to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour — the highest in the country, tied with Seattle — by 2018. Since its passage, the rate has incrementally increased each year from $10.74 an hour, and on Saturday, it hit $14.

While the increase raises the price tag for doing business in San Francisco, some retailers have been able to accommodate the higher payroll costs through various means without tinkering with worker’s shifts. However, other businesses have had to slash employees hours in an effort to save money.

SF Weekly received a report from an employee (who wishes to remain anonymous) at Sockshop on Haight Street. They claim their workdays have been cut 40 percent, and that the length of their shifts has been reduced as well.

“It is absolutely because of the wage increase,” they say. “The managers there have made it clear to everyone there that they cannot ‘afford’ to pay us all, often complaining about the forced wage increase to each other and to us.”

They say that although the increase to $14 an hour helps, they’re still struggling to make ends meet, even though they’re currently in a house with seven other people and taking on multiple side jobs to break even.

“I also cut back on my food and my social activities. … I buy the cheapest stuff possible, usually bulk rice or pasta, and whatever meat is the cheapest at the local market. I don’t really eat many vegetables, fruits, or sweets, as those are expensive enough to only be the rare treat,” they say.

We reached out to Sockshop for comment but have yet to hear back.

On the other hand, some businesses, like Comix Experience on Divisadero Street, are getting creative in order to accommodate an eventual increase in payroll expenses, totaling $80,000 a year, without cutting employees hours — at least for now.

This Saturday marked the two-year anniversary of the Graphic Novel Club for Adults and the Kid’s Graphic Novel Club at Comix Experience. Owner Brian Hibbs developed the clubs as a way to bring in extra revenue when the wage mandates took effect. For $25 a month — or $240 annually — members get a copy of a graphic novel, admission to a book club meeting in which the author is present (sometimes via video chat), and “amazing swag,” including exclusive signed bookplates from the graphic novel’s illustrator.

In order to remain “revenue-neutral” and not cut employees’ hours, Hibbs needs to hit 334 sustaining members by this time next year, when $15 an hour becomes the law of the land. (He’s currently at 240.) The club is also open to out-of-towners, as he is able to ship the books and live-stream the meetings to non-local members.

“The whole point of the club is so I don’t have to [reduce anyone’s hours]. … If we can continue to get this to grow, then it’s set up so that my staff are the one’s who benefit from it. If we get over 334, they get 100 percent of the proceeds,” says Hibbs.

But he’s also hesitant to say these sort of policies are a great thing hands-down, citing a University of Washington study released last week. It found that folks making the minimum wage in Seattle saw a decrease in both jobs and hours when the city raised the minimum wage to $13 an hour last year. (Seattle is set to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour this year for businesses with more than 500 employees and by 2021 for everyone else.) However, some scholars argue that Seattle’s booming job market may have also pushed out low-paying gigs.

“I understand that it’s hard to write a law that looks at things in a holistic way, it just concerns me very deeply,” says Hibbs. “If I had to start today, I could have opened my store, but I’d never be able to hire any employees. These types of wage laws put a floor on the amount of money you need to make to stay in business, so that makes it less likely that new entrepreneurs will come in.”

Wes Rowe, who opened Wes Burger ’N’ More in the Mission last spring, tells SF Weekly that he accounted for the wage hike when he was putting his initial business plan together.

“It never really caught us off-guard, because we started with the knowledge that this would be a thing,” Rowe says. “I think it’s a great thing, and I think it’s important to have employees make a living wage in proximity to where they work.”

He also says that he does everything he can to pay above minimum wage whenever it’s possible.

“It says a lot to only be paying someone minimum wage. It’s saying you’re only paying them as little as you possibly can,” he says, pointing out that while some positions at Wes Burger may start at the bottom end of the pay scale, he makes an effort to move those employees up quickly.

Across the street from Sockshop at The Booksmith, Events and Marketing Director Amy Stephenson tells us that while they have traditionally paid above the minimum, the increase has them temporarily back to just about minimum wage, with the aim to increase wages as things level off and they can fully adjust to the changes.

“We’ve done some really simple things to help with the increased cost, like involving management in more of the day-to-day running of the store was one way. But really we started planning for this as soon as the wage hike was announced and we’ve been working toward it ever since,” Stephenson says.

“I’ve heard that some shops are cutting hours, and, speaking for myself, I find it disappointing that the wage hike is being taken out on the people it was designed to help,” she continues. “People deserve to be able to afford to live in San Francisco.”

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