Richmond Times Dispatch: Ward Tefft: Yes, Virginia — We do need a $15 minimum wage

Op-Ed By Ward Tefft
Richmond Times Dispatch, Feb 11, 2020. Also in the Culpeper Star Exponent and other papers.

I’ve been a business owner in Richmond for nearly two decades. I combined my love of literature and community and opened an independent bookstore in 2002. And what a time it was to take the leap. Virginia was still reeling from the 2001-02 recession and Amazon had been consecrated as the grave digger for the bookstore industry.

Oh, and from day one, I made it a policy to pay my employees more than the minimum wage.

Eighteen years later, Chop Suey Books, named for the old West Cary Street restaurant whose sign hung on the building, is still going strong — now in our second location in Carytown. We survived Amazon, the Great Recession and the dire predictions that reading, as a pastime and a pleasure, is passé.

Our longevity has become proof-positive to me of the value small business has in building and sustaining America’s economic and social life, and the value of paying workers fair wages.

It’s for these reasons that I strongly support raising Virginia’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, which lawmakers are currently debating.

There is simply no more direct and rapid way to boost consumer spending and strengthen Virginia’s business environment than to raise the minimum wage statewide.

When working people have more buying power, it increases sales at local businesses and relieves strain on social services from inadequate wages.

Forget trickle-down economics. I have yet to see any tangible evidence of prosperity trickling down from Wall Street to Main Street. It’s far better to pay the workers of Main Street a living wage and let the additional dollars be spent up and down Main, Cary and other streets throughout Richmond and our commonwealth.

I need a large customer base with enough disposable income to purchase a book for their child, or for their small but growing bookshelf or for that rainy night in. For many people, raising the minimum wage makes those purchases possible.

We have a wonderful children’s room decorated with colorful murals. But a parent working full-time who must choose between food, diapers or a book will always choose the food and diapers. I understand that. It’s just that they shouldn’t have to.

I already pay well above the current $7.25 minimum wage because I couldn’t attract or keep the kind of well-read candidate I am looking for if I didn’t reward those qualities with a fair wage. I couldn’t retain those employees if they were being paid a wage so low they would have to work multiple jobs to cover the basics.

Because I pay a good wage, I have very low turnover and new-employee training costs. When one of my employees does leave, it’s usually to pursue a higher education degree — not because they were offered 25 cents an hour more to work at a franchise across the street, not because they found a job at Amazon or Costco for their starting wage of $15.

My employees get to know our customers and our customers get to know our employees. Our customers want to shop here. They enjoy our book club and events. They tell their friends about us. And the children of customers grow up and become customers themselves. Small businesses invested in their employees strengthen the local economy they are rooted in.

There is a growing chorus of business owners like me who are encouraging lawmakers to raise the minimum wage to strengthen our state’s economy. We understand that one business’ employees are another business’ customers — and vice versa. If customers don’t have money to spend, it doesn’t matter how little you pay your workers. Your business won’t thrive.

Twenty-one states started off this year with minimum wage increases, and more increases are coming later this year. Virginia was not among them. Virginia’s minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009 — losing buying power with every passing year.

Yes, Virginia, it’s time — it’s past time — to raise our state minimum wage.

Ward Tefft is the founder and owner of Chop Suey Books in Carytown and a member of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage.

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Copyright 2020 Ward Tefft

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