Chamber looks at minimum wage

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Business > Owners noncommittal on raising rate above current state standard

By Arin McKenna

Los Alamos business owners are divided on raising the minimum wage, according to a member survey conducted by the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce.
Nearly 43 percent of the 45 chamber members who responded said there are undecided on increasing the minimum wage. About 33 percent of respondents said they support an increase while 24 percent say they don’t.
The survey, which was discussed during a chamber breakfast Thursday, included discussions on other issues such as creating a health insurance pool, creating a local job board and the lack of awareness of the chamber’s crowd-funding venue, Main Street Crowd.
Most of Thursday’s discussion focused on the minimum wage.
Those who attended the breakfast said they all pay higher than minimum wage.
Scott Randall, executive director of the Las Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation, said the chamber pays a minimum of $9.50 an hour, although the visitor centers also benefits from 3,500 hours a year of volunteer work.
“We found the need to establish a significantly higher minimum wage even for our student employees, just to get them interested and considering the job,” Randall said. “We heard that from everyone, particularly in the service industries. They’re paying a significantly higher wage to get people to come up the hill.”
“I don’t currently have any minimum wage employees. I found up here that it’s difficult to find anyone that will work for minimum wage,” said Tracy Maddox, owner of Southwest Office Solutions and Hilltop Spa.
Maddox said that it is difficult to compete with Los Alamos National Laboratory for employees.
“I’ve had to change my business model over the years and offer benefits to try to be a little bit more competitive,” Maddox said.
Maddox appeared to be more in favor of “encouraging” local business owners to raise wages rather than setting a minimum.
Gillian Sutton, owner of Flowers by Gillian and co-owner of KRSN, noted that Los Alamos also has to compete with Santa Fe. Santa Fe County’s new minimum wage of $10.66 an hour went into effect March 1.
“With Santa Fe having the living wage, if you’re going to do a service industry job, such as the bagger at Smith’s, or the waitress, and then you have to come up the hill … if you live in Pojoaque, and you can go to Santa Fe for $11 an hour or you can come up here for $8 an hour, and you’re basically paying the same amount of gas, which way are you going to drive?” Sutton said. “This is a no brainer. So I think we really need to address it to make it higher up here.”
Los Alamos National Bank President Steve Wells was against the idea.
“I personally am for the free market system. Now, that doesn’t mean that always works right,” Wells said.
“The reason I believe the market process is better is because your business is responsible for the customer experience. That’s what you’re selling. You’re selling the experience the customer has. And the person who can most impact that besides yourself is your employee. And you have to find a way to stimulate that employee.”
Wells noted that while wages hold more sway with entry-level employees, benefits such as healthcare and flexible hours often take priority over wages in employee surveys.
“So the key for an employer, to me, is to look for ways to enrich that job in ways that are not necessarily always wage,” Wells said.
Wells also expressed the belief that “If you do not do well with your employees, you will not exist.”
Tarin Nix, president of NuPolitics, who worked on Santa Fe’s living wage campaign, attended the breakfast to advocate for a living wage in Los Alamos.
“I think the people represented here are the cream of the crop. You’re the business leaders of the community,” Nix said.
“The businesses I’m talking about, the reason why a living wage is needed in Los Alamos, is because the chains that come up here, and want to be up here, especially once Smith’s opens up — Smith’s is the exception not the rule — they need to be held to a standard.
“Those locations are paying $7.50 an hour. So they don’t care. They don’t care about their workforce. And it shows. And it kind of creates this system in the underbelly of the community that a lot of business owners wouldn’t necessarily see unless they directly serve that clientele.”
Nix attempted to reassure owners that successful living wage ordinances have flexibility built into them.
“Under a normal living wage, the ones that have held up in the courts, they all have family exemptions, and they all have internships, student exemptions, because they’re learning a valuable trade,” Nix said.
“People hear a living wage and think it’s a hard number and it’s going to constantly increase so we’re never going to have any way around it. It’s not finite. It’s a number that’s set for those other industries that come up and need to set it at some level, but not for people like you that are paying $10 an hour, but giving other benefits that put it at well over $15 an hour. So you would far exceed the minimum wage expectation.”
Results showed that two services were under the radar for many members.
Only 11.63 percent were aware they could receive a reduced price for advertising in local markets and 13.95 percent were aware of the chamber’s crowd-funding venue, Main Street Crowd, which helps members raise money for a project from the local community.