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The Complexities Of Raising The Minimum Wage On The Retail Industry


President Biden's massive COVID relief bill is set to go to the House this week for final approval and then to the president's desk for his signature. The $15 minimum wage will not be part of it. Most Republicans say raising the minimum wage that high would make it tough for businesses. Here's South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: I'm worried about the small business owner who is struggling because COVID has reduced their capability to earn a living.

MARTIN: NPR's Alina Selyukh talked with a lot of different business owners about a possible $15 minimum wage. And she got a whole lot of different opinions.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Lynn Sikora is cashing out some post office workers on a lunch run.

LYNN SIKORA: Hi, sweetness. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED POST OFFICE WORKER: Hey. How are you doing, ma'am?

SIKORA: Good, good, good.

SELYUKH: She's staffing her own store today, a market in North Charleston, S.C.

SIKORA: Convenience items, deli items, grocery items - call it my trifecta.

SELYUKH: Sikora says she employs three full-time workers and, normally, two part-timers, whom she had to let go during the pandemic. She pays workers about $10 an hour to start. And she thinks it's unfair for the government to dictate a $15 minimum across the entire country.

SIKORA: That's unrealistic, A, for the cost of living around here, B, what an owner can support. I would have to fire another person. And I would have to work 12-hour, 90-hour weeks.

SELYUKH: She says each state should decide for itself. Except, South Carolina never set its own minimum wage, defaulting to the federal one of $7.25 an hour, which hasn't changed in over a decade. Around Charleston, many businesses say they've already pushed wages toward $15 an hour, a flower design shop, a century old men's clothing store. Cost of living here has been growing fast. Julia Turner's bookstore is just down the street from Sikora's market.

JULIA TURNER: Technically, the starting pay was $10 an hour. But we increased that after six months to 15 an hour.

SELYUKH: That's for the single staffer she and her co-owner employ. In another state that uses the federal minimum wage by default, Steve Sears owns a store in Cheyenne, Wyo.

STEVE SEARS: Sometimes I think it owns me (laughter).

SELYUKH: It's a screen printing and embroidery shop that has three employees starting around $11 an hour. Sears wishes he had two more but can't quite afford it. He now supports a $15 minimum wage to lift up more American workers. But he says he would have to reduce his margins and raise prices.

SEARS: If I could pay $15 an hour right off the bat, I would. And if I have to, I will. I'll figure out a way to do it. I just wish the people who could pay it would pay it.

SELYUKH: That's a dig I heard a lot from small shop owners. They wish big grocery, fast food and other chains would dip into their own profit margins first to boost more lower income families who often use that money to shop locally.

ASHRAF HIJAZ: People will spend the money when they have it.

SELYUKH: Ashraf Hijaz (ph) has about 150 workers at about two dozen beauty supply and furniture stores around the South. His starting pay is about $9 an hour. But Hijaz advocates for the $15 minimum because it would affect most of his shoppers.

HIJAZ: They will spend more money. And they will give me the ability to increase pay for my employees.

SELYUKH: A congressional analysis found a $15 federal minimum would raise pay for 27 million workers but cut about 1.4 million jobs. Many business groups worry about these job cuts, now saying a federal minimum should be higher, but not to 15.

FRANK KNAPP: Would it be a shock if South Carolina (laughter) went from 7.25 to $15? Yeah, it would be a shock.

SELYUKH: Frank Knapp runs the Small Business Chamber of Commerce back in South Carolina.

KNAPP: But small businesses are probably not going to shut down because of it. If all their competitors have to do the same, then they will have to adjust either pricing or find deficiencies in their operation.

SELYUKH: Knapp's group supports raising the minimum wage but has no official position on $15 an hour.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "APRIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.

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