Minimum wage debate concerns small-business owners

By JORGE ENCINAS

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Ernesto Esquer works at his campus job repairing photo equipment.

During his State of the Union address, President Obama appealed to Congress to tie the federal minimum wage to the cost of living and raise it from $7.25 to $9 an hour.

“Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour,” Obama said.

The increase is welcome news to worker advocates and employees making minimum wage. However, some small-business owners say any increase would cause serious concerns for managing expenses and payroll.

Phil Bryson, who owns the brewd coffee shop downtown, said the idea of adding more expenses during the current economy is troublesome.

“It would be very hard to be able to pay that much and then pay the taxes on top of it,” Bryson said. He currently has one employee on staff.

Pima Community College student Ernesto Esquer receives minimum wage as a part-time photo lab aide at West Campus. He also works a second job at a local small business.

Esquer said he has mixed feelings about receiving a bigger paycheck.

“It would be great to make more money, but small business would suffer,” Esquer said. “Who’s going to pay for them?”

Advocates for the increase say the yearly income for a full-time employee earning minimum wage is $15,080, well below the poverty line of $23,550 for a family of four.

The National Employment Law Project, an organization that works for an increase in the minimum wage, says the current level would be $10.56 if the minimum wage had kept up with inflation over the last 40 years.

Currently, 19 states require minimum wages above the federal minimum. Among them is Arizona, which currently requires employers to pay $7.80 an hour.

Arizona is also one of 10 states that use “indexing,” a process of updating the minimum wage each year to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

Margo Susco, owner of Hydra clothing store, pays above minimum wage, and said she sympathizes with workers who need the extra relief that an increase in minimum wage can offer.

At the same time, she understands how raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour could be a burden on small-business owners who have five to 10 employees on the payroll.

“As a human being, I think it’s a good idea,” she said. “As a small-business owner, if I had 10 employees and they tried to raise it, I wouldn’t be pleased with it because I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

Susco thinks big businesses should be required to pay more in wages, because they have the funds to do so.

“When dealing with these big corporations, it’s really a travesty that they pay minimum wage,” Susco said. “Their profits are huge. The CEOs make millions and millions of dollars.

“They can pay minimum wage; they can pay $9 an hour. They just don’t want to have to.”

For local business owners who work in their shop alongside employees, the debate over increasing the federal minimum wage has a more personal aspect.

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Brewd owner Phil Bryson, left, and employee Jeremiah Forbes speak with a customer on a slow day.

“Everybody needs a livable minimum wage, but I think it comes down to who can afford it, and in economic times like this, it’s harder for small business to pay more,” Bryson said while standing next to his employee at the counter of his coffee shop.

“It would be the difference of having a mostly full-time employee to being a mostly part-time employee,” he said.

There is no timetable or agreement in Congress for any increase to the minimum wage, and Esquer questions whether it will even become a reality.

“Probably not,” he said. “Maybe in steps, but off the bat, not likely.”

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