I believe that in 2021, a $15/hour minimum wage is a moral obligation. No one working 40 hours a week should live in poverty.
And yet, for many small businesses, it may be difficult to afford this wage.
When my business partner and I opened OX Coffee in the fall of 2013 in Queen Village, one of our goals was to pay our employees a wage of $15 an hour. We had both been on the receiving end of unlivable wages and understood the importance of a living wage. We accomplished our goal, but it took us years. If we had assistance early on, we could’ve done it starting day one.
Because the $15/hour minimum wage provision was removed from the federal relief package signed into law earlier this month, it is now up to Harrisburg to deliver for Pennsylvania. Whether a $15/hour minimum wage in Pennsylvania is mandated immediately or raised over the period of a few years, small businesses must be able to pay any increase to the wage when it’s required of them without fear of going under due to a lack of financial resources. If we lose our small businesses in the process of raising the minimum wage, we will damage the fabric of our communities.
So how can we ensure a living wage for all Pennsylvanians and support the small-business community across the commonwealth at the same time? I believe it will require assistance from the city and state until a small business can sustainably afford to pay the increased minimum wage on their own.
A vacant property tax on property owners and landlords who intentionally keep commercial spaces vacant over extended periods of time could raise substantial funds for this assistance. Similar vacancy taxes have been implemented in Oakland, Calif., and Washington, D.C., with San Francisco and New York City on the verge of moving forward with vacancy taxes of their own.
In San Francisco last year, a vacant property tax was introduced as a ballot measure in response to increasing vacant storefronts in San Francisco’s neighborhoods, not dissimilar to those found here in Philadelphia along South Street. The measure passed with 70% of the vote. The tax ordinance states that “Retail vacancies may persist as property owners and landlords hold storefronts off of the market for extended periods of time or refuse to offer the space for a reasonable market rate. The purpose of the Vacancy Tax is to stimulate the rehabilitation of long-term retail vacancies, and, in turn, reinvigorate commercial corridors and stabilize commercial rents, thereby allowing new small businesses to open and existing small businesses to thrive.” The revenue generated from the tax, an estimated $5 million annually, will go to a Small Business Assistance Fund, supporting the operation and maintenance of local small businesses.
A vacancy tax and Small Business Assistance Fund could do the same thing here in Philadelphia and in cities and towns across Pennsylvania. It could work to ensure our communities are not lined with empty storefronts and temporarily help small businesses afford a $15/hour minimum wage for the jobs they provide.
And the benefits of a living wage are clear. A $15/hour minimum wage would lift pay for 32 million workers, or 21% of the U.S. workforce, giving year-round workers an extra $3,300/year. It would allow millions of families to move away from public support programs and lower poverty rates across the country. It would be particularly significant for workers of color and would help narrow the racial pay gap. It would attract new residents to our state, spur greater business activity, job growth, and local reinvestment, and create stronger bonds in all regions, which will be necessary to get our commonwealth’s economy rolling again post-pandemic.
In short, a $15/hour minimum wage is not just the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do.
With local and state support, we could give our neighbors, friends, and loved ones the life of possibility we all deserve, and, at the same time, permit small businesses the ability to do what’s right without the risk of going under. To realize a $15/hour minimum wage here in the state of Pennsylvania, our city and state governments must step up and deliver at this critical moment of opportunity and on this moral obligation. It can be done.
Will Gross is a small-business owner who opened OX Coffee with a friend in 2013. He lives with his wife, Lindsey, and cat, Charlie, in Bella Vista.