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Why This Seattle Chef Is Embracing A Higher Minimum Wage For Employees

Seattle chef Renee Erickson won the 2016 James Beard Award as best chef in the Northwest. She employs 100 people at her restaurant group.

Last year, Seattle began phasing in a minimum wage of $15 an hour. Businesses with more than 500 employees are all required to pay that wage by 2018. Smaller companies have until 2021 to comply, but some entrepreneurs are embracing the call for a higher minimum wage ahead of schedule.

One of them is Renee Erickson, a Seattle chef, who this week won the 2016 James Beard Award as the best chef in the Northwest. She employs 100 people at her restaurant group.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson spoke with Erickson about her decision to raise employee wages, as part of the show's minimum wage series.

Why did you decide to raise your pay right away?

Well, most of our employees already made $15 an hour or more. And with a number of factors kind of leading into it — around tipping and the legality of sharing tips with the back of the house and other factors for our company — we decided to switch right away and kind of implement a service charge for our tipping. And [we tried] to organize our payment in a different way, so that we were legally doing the tip sharing. And also, we just didn't really feel like we needed to wait. There weren't that many people that needed to be bumped up. We just thought it was the right thing to do.

So you essentially got rid of tipping?

Essentially, yes. With the inability to tip share legally, it would have been a really huge bump for our servers and not so much for the rest of our employees. And so with legally being able to redistribute the tips, that would allow us to give raises to other people in the company as well. It would kind of even it out a little bit more.

Nobody's making less money than they are a year ago?

You know, it might be like a dollar, somewhere in that range. But it's not consistent and a lot of that is driven on business as well. It's all relative to the day and the week that they work and how many hours they work, and that's spread out over everyone that's working that shift with them.

Did you ever have a minimum wage job?

Oh yeah, I mean I've worked in the restaurant industry my whole life. So I started at a sub shop and, you know, I was 15 and I don't know what I made.

Has that shaped your views on what you are doing now with wages in your company?

Yeah, and the more I think about it, in my business — in the restaurant industry — there's a lot of other factors about it that are bringing up issues as far as tipping and that sort of thing. I think that's where it falls apart for me is that these are people that are working really hard. And often times [they're working] for big companies that, you know, I think are fairly profitable, and they're not paying their employees well. And [the employees] need to work two or three jobs and you know, [are] not living the life I think they deserve.

We're a for-profit company and we all want to make money. I mean, we have to to survive. But we have other concerns that are important to us as well, and that is definitely our employees.

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