Bellingham's minimum wage, rental relocation initiatives pass. Now what? - Salish Current
November 10, 2023
Bellingham’s minimum wage, rental relocation initiatives pass. Now what?
Matt Benoit

A majority of Bellingham voters did indeed vote yes, as urged by a campaign sign posted in downtown’s Mallard Ice Cream, on initiatives to raise the city’s minimum wage above the state level and to establish renter relocation support. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

November 10, 2023
Bellingham’s minimum wage, rental relocation initiatives pass. Now what?
Matt Benoit

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At local downtown businesses, employees were mostly happy to hear the news. 

Mila Hyra, a 19-year-old employee at Accomplice — a burger, sandwich and ice cream restaurant on North State Street that’s operated by the owners of Carnal in the former Rudy’s Pizzeria location — voted yes on both initiatives. 

Initiative 1, which establishes a Bellingham-centric minimum wage $1 above the state’s minimum wage, had garnered 58.45% of votes tallied as of the Nov. 9 count, with only 250 ballots left to count. 

Initiative 2, requiring landlords to provide 120 days written notice before increasing rent by more than 8% in a 12-month period, while also paying for relocation assistance if rent is increased by more than that percentage, was passing with 61.98% of tallied votes. 

As someone already making above minimum wage when tips are added to her wages, Hyra said the increase — slated to be $17.28 an hour when it takes effect on May 1, 2024 — goes a long way toward better reflecting what someone’s time is actually worth for entry-level work. 

“Everyone my age that I know is working minimum wage,” she said. “It is not enough money, especially if you’re doing school at the same time. Working 25 hours a week here is cutting it really close with paying rent.”

She said that she knows other young Bellingham residents, among them her boyfriend and her roommate, who need the wage boost more than she does: both work closer to full-time at a local restaurant and make significantly fewer tips than her. 

“These are people who are relying on this vote to go through so that they can continue working where they work,” she said. “Otherwise, it’d be time to look for another job.”

Hyra is certainly pleased with the passing of Initiative 2 — her rent had increased $800 in just the past two years. With roughly 56% of Bellingham renters categorized as “cost-burdened” in the city’s most recent comprehensive housing plan, supporters of the soon-to-be-enacted initiative are hoping the measure will help renters avoid abrupt spikes in housing costs and have more stability in moving from one place to another.

The income and cost-of-living equation can hit hard. In October, Bellingham’s cost of living was up 2.9% over the past year with the largest increases in transportation, food and housing — and at a level 10.9% higher than the national average.

“I’ve noticed students who’ve had to work up to two to three jobs while still being in school, which really should not be the requirement in order to be able to afford to live in the same area to get education,” said Berit Manser, a senior at Western Washington University, in a pre-election interview. With that sort of workload, extracurricular and recreational activities are not possible, she noted.

Wages and prices

Just up the street at Jack’s BBQ, general manager Cody Farias said the wage increase was obviously not a bad thing for employees, but noted that it may offer minimal benefit to them if rent and other necessities continue increasing more than what an extra dollar an hour can compensate for. 

That is especially the case at Jack’s, where back-of-house employees already make above minimum wage and front-of-house employees collect healthy tips to also exceed minimum wage.

“I feel like (the increase) would be more impactful in non-tipped positions,” Farias said, such as dishwashers and other entry level positions. 

Although coming wage increases — roughly 12% for his employees over two years, he said — are unlikely to change the way he runs the restaurant, the impact to the business is almost certain to show up in places people might not like: menu pricing. 

If that happens, Farias worries about customers such as students, many of whom might consider the restaurant’s already premium pricing near their meal-price limits. 

“We have plates that are $28,” he said. “(If) they go up to $35, now we’re starting to price out certain demographics.”

Price hikes and reduced business could further impact a restaurant’s bottom line, he added, if minimum-order quantities of food remain the same but fewer people are suddenly there to consume it. 

Compensating for impacts

Farias said he voted against Initiative 1 because many minimum wage increases often seem insufficient to truly make a difference in an employee’s life, while eroding a business’s bottom line.

He also voted against it, he added, because of what he’s seen in other restaurant environments over his 16-year career. 

Many non-required employee raises, he said, have been the result of hard work by employees. By raising a minimum wage up to what employees are already making, restaurants may be less likely to provide future raises, and employees may even be slightly demoralized by having their jobs suddenly referred to as “minimum wage” when they previously were not, he added. 

It’s also possible that restaurants respond by having their employees work slightly fewer hours to compensate, he said. Jack’s has somewhat prepared for wage increases and associated labor efficiency, he added, by cross-training as many employees as possible to do each other’s jobs in a flexible capacity. 

“It does impact everything, in one way or another,” he said. “(But) right now, I don’t think it’ll significantly improve or reduce the quality of life or work flow for our employees.”

Others in the business community echoed concerns about future impacts.

In a statement against the measure before the election, Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Guy Occhiogrosso called the balance between fair wages and the sustainability of businesses a “complex challenge” that requires careful consideration and analysis of potential consequences.

“While I am disappointed by the outcome, we were not shocked as this issue didn’t rise to the level of public awareness and critical review as many of the other races,” he said today. “We do think we will be dealing with a number of unintended consequences over the next many years, most of all being an increase in the costs of goods and services. Ultimately my hope is the probable negative outcomes are less than the intended good of the initiatives.”

Supporters of the measure have predicted positive effects.

“When wages go up, the community benefits through stimulated consumer spending, business support and economic growth,” Devan Fischer said in a supporting statement. “A local minimum wage set at $2 above the state minimum wage … will help workers afford to stay and spend in our city.

Initiative 1 will increase the city’s minimum wage to $2 above whatever the state wage is on May 1, 2025. As of Jan. 1, 2024, the state wage for those 16 and older will be $16.28 – up $0.54 from 2023’s current rate of $15.74. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator indicates Bellingham’s living wage for a single adult with no dependents to be $17.30. Supporters of Initiative 1 say the $2 increase could net minimum wage employees an additional $4,160 annually. 

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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