Boom or Bust, Part II: Business Owners Vary on Minimum Wage Hike
Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a 4-part series studying the proposed minimum wage hike in Portage County. Part III can be seen in the September 14th issue of the Stevens Point City-Times.
By Patrick Lynn and Brandi Makuski
Residents throughout Portage County have two more months to decide whether they want to vote in favor of an advisory referendum calling for an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
The referendum will be one of two advisory questions included on the November ballot, with the second question involving a request to expand BadgerCare. The Portage County Board voted on August 19 to move both questions forward for voters to answer on Election Day.
The movement was spearheaded by local Assemblywoman Katrina Shank-land, who hand-delivered a petition with more than 600 signatures to the county’s finance committee asking for the referendum.
“I think it’s important the board know if this referendum (isn’t placed on the ballot), residents in Portage County will not have their voices weighed equally to the members of the other counties (that have had a referendum),” Shankland told the board on August 18. “Not only did we have more than 600 signatures, but over 40 people are here today to speak and sup-port or sit and support the minimum wage referendum. How many times do you have this many people flooding a room for a vote?”
According to Shankland, a rise in minimum wage would bring over half a million Wisconsin residents out of poverty. She said the rise in wages would mean alleviating the county’s health and human services budget and reduce the types of services residents currently are in need of. The increase, she said, would also bring more than 200,000 kids into a better way of living.
Jan Way, a resident from the Town of Hull, said she’s got plenty of business experience in the community, having owned Stevens Point Tents for over 30 years.
“When I sold my business three years ago, most of our part-time seasonal employees made between $9 and $12,” Way said. “My point is, I think it’s important employees living in poverty have the opportunity to vote on this issue. Businesses, in my feeling, do not thrive and flourish when potential customers have no disposable income to buy goods and services like the ones that we provided, when they have a hard time making ends meet just to get food on the table. With an increase in the minimum wage, economic conditions would improve for everyone in poverty and up into the middle class.”
Way, who was recently appointed to the Town of Hull Board, said a rise in minimum wage would no longer force people to work full-time just to be in poverty.
“And taxpayers would not be obliged to subsidize workers that are unable to make a living wage,” she added.
Guy Janssen, owner of Emy J’s in Downtown Stevens Point, said he wanted the referendum question placed on the ballot because he believes the majority of voter would turn it down.
“I’ve been a business owner in Stevens Point for a little over 20 years. We strongly support leaving this on the ballot because it is important that people be heard,” Janssen said. “And when you find out people are not in support of this, you’ll find out what they think.”
Other downtown business owners said the increase could force them to close their doors. “We’re talking about laying off a lot of the staff if that goes through,” said Troy Hojnacki, owner of Graffiti’s Sports Pub and co-owner of Square Scoops. “I mean, our people get paid pretty well now, but $10.10? There’s no way we could ever afford to keep everyone. And on top of that, all our costs will go up. That three dollar drink is going to cost a lot more than three dollars, I can tell you that much.”
Bruce Worboril, owner of Elbow Room, said his expenses would increase to such a degree he’d go out of business.
“The increase in my labor would go up; my expenses would be an extra $20,000 annually,” Worboril said. “Essentially, it would be shutting my business down.”
The increase in labor costs isn’t foremost on the minds of some of the area’s largest employers, such as Portage County, the City of Stevens Point or the Stevens Point Public School District- which employs over 1,000 people in the area.
“I can’t say how it could affect the way we pay employees,” said Human Resources Director Florence Haley. “None of our teachers are currently at minimum wage, and I know the school board is currently looking at the teacher’s pay plan right now.”
Repeated messages left for Lori Dehlinger Van Alstine, executive director of the Portage County Business Council, were not returned for this story. But a member of the Plover Area Business Council said he didn’t see any major effect on his business.
Joe Kinsella at Point Precision, Inc., says he employs about 200 employees but doubts there would be any changes to that number should the minimum wage increase.
“It probably wouldn’t have any effect on our employees because they’re all above that rate,” Kinsella said. “I would say the only area it might affect us in with our youth apprentice students.”
Each school year, Kinsella said his company works with the school district as part of the curriculum to mentor students interested in machining. Students are taught different parts of the business under close supervision.
“Some (students) typically go on to the tech college, others, in our experience, go on to get engineering degrees,” he said. “But they are paid under $10.10, so we’d see an impact there. But we only have six students in that program, so it’s not a major impact.”
Kinsella said should the minimum wage in- crease to the full $10.10 per hour, he would continue to take on all six students each year.