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CEO Hikes Minimum Wage To $70K, Capitalist Tragicomedy Ensues

Meet 31-year-old Dan Price.

Dan is the CEO of Seattle-based credit card payments processing firm Gravity Payments, and three months ago, he did a funny thing. 

After talking with a friend who confessed to having difficulties making student loan payments and rent each month on an annual salary of $40,000, Dan decided to set a $70,000 per year pay floor at Gravity.

Dan was not, The New York Times says, looking to insert himself into "the current political clamor over low wages or the growing gap between rich and poor." All he wanted to do was improve the lives of the 120 or so people who worked for him and after reviewing some literature on the subject, he decided that $70,000 was the level at which workers start to experience "an enormous difference in [their] emotional well-being."

Predictably, the initial response to the new policy was quite positive. Here’s The Times:

Talk show hosts lined up to interview Mr. Price. Job seekers by the thousands sent in résumés. He was called a "thought leader." Harvard business professors flew out to conduct a case study. Third graders wrote him thank-you notes. Single women wanted to date him.

 


But even as Dan adjusted to life as a rebel hero and basked in his newfound popularity among third graders and single women, he quickly learned that whether he liked it or not, he had waded waist deep into the minimum wage debate and he would soon discover a few very hard lessons about the unintended consequences of hiking the pay floor. 

First, some employees felt it wasn’t fair to indiscriminately give everyone a raise. That is, some felt Gravity should at least pay lip service to the notion that there's a connection between higher pay and performance and because the new pay plan didn't seem to acknowledge that link, the company lost some workers.

Two of Mr. Price’s most valued employees quit, spurred in part by their view that it was unfair to double the pay of some new hires while the longest-serving staff members got small or no raises. Some friends and associates in Seattle’s close-knit entrepreneurial network were also piqued that Mr. Price’s action made them look stingy in front of their own employees.

 

Maisey McMaster was also one of the believers. Now 26, she joined the company five years ago and worked her way up to financial manager, putting in long hours that left little time for her husband and extended family. "There’s a special culture," where people "work hard and play hard," she said. "I love everyone there."

 

She helped calculate whether the firm could afford to gradually raise everyone’s salary to $70,000 over a three-year period, and was initially swept up in the excitement. But the more she thought about it, the more the details gnawed at her.

 

"He gave raises to people who have the least skills and are the least equipped to do the job, and the ones who were taking on the most didn’t get much of a bump," she said. To her, a fairer proposal would have been to give smaller increases with the opportunity to earn a future raise with more experience.

 

A couple of days after the announcement, she decided to talk to Mr. Price.

 


 

"He treated me as if I was being selfish and only thinking about myself," she said. "That really hurt me. I was talking about not only me, but about everyone in my position."

 

Already approaching burnout from the relentless pace, she decided to quit.

Next, Gravity began to lose some of its long-standing customers and while the across-the-board pay raise won the company more than enough new business to make up the difference, the new accounts won’t be immediately accretive and in the meantime, Gravity has had to hire more people to service the new accounts and thanks to the new salary floor, all of those new employees will eventually have to be paid $70,000.

A few customers, dismayed by what they viewed as a political statement, withdrew their business. Others, anticipating a fee increase — despite repeated assurances to the contrary — also left. While dozens of new clients, inspired by Mr. Price’s announcement, were signing up, those accounts will not start paying off for at least another year. To handle the flood, he has already had to hire a dozen additional employees — now at a significantly higher cost — and is struggling to figure out whether more are needed without knowing for certain how long the bonanza will last.

Dan’s benevolence is also costing him friends in the business community where some say Gravity’s new pay floor will embolden minimum wage workers in their quest for higher pay. 

Brian Canlis, a co-owner of his family-named restaurant, is also a client. He said he was fond of Mr. Price, but was more discomfited by his actions. 

 

Mr. Canlis is already worried about how to deal with Seattle’s new minimum wage, which rose to $11 an hour in April and is scheduled to reach $15 an hour for small businesses within five years.

 

The pay raise at Gravity, Mr. Canlis told Mr. Price, "makes it harder for the rest of us."

Finally, Dan is now being sued by his older brother and as it turns out, Maisey McMaster had not included a "provision for legal fees in case my brother sues us" line item in the new budget, which means that ultimately, Gravity may have a hard time staying in business.

Less than two weeks after the announcement, Mr. Price’s older brother and Gravity co-founder, Lucas Price, citing longstanding differences, filed a lawsuit that potentially threatened the company’s very existence. With legal bills quickly mounting and most of his own paycheck and last year’s $2.2 million in profits plowed into the salary increases, Dan Price said, "We don’t have a margin of error to pay those legal fees."

 

Lucas Price owns about 30 percent of their company, although he has not actively been involved in day-to-day operations for several years. There had been tensions between the two long before the new pay plan, and Lucas is demanding that Dan buy him out for an unspecified amount, plus damages.

*  *  *

To be sure, there are number of lessons here and indeed, the Gravity story touches on several topics we've discussed at length over the last several months.

There's no question that surviving in America is becoming more difficult by the year for an alarmingly large subset of the population and part of the problem is anemic wage growth for 83% of the workforce. In fact, just last week the Department of Labor said the employment cost index notched a meager 0.2% increase in Q2 - that's the smallest quarterly gain since record keeping began in 1982. 


Despite claims that this miserable data point was anomalous, this ECI print clearly suggests that for all the publicity around the minimum wage debate, and despite (or maybe even because of) the growing pressure on employers to raise the pay floor, wage growth is virtually non existent. 

Meanwhile, easy access to credit has led to an explosion of student loan debt and yet that debt has created a preponderence of degreed job seekers. In other words, college degrees are now so common as to reduce their value for prospective employers which has had the unfortunate effect of transforming many college educated, would-be professionals into waiters and bartenders. 


Needless to say, paying off $35,000 in student debt is tough when you're relying on tips to make ends meet and it's made all the more difficult by the fact that rents are soaring. With lenders still stinging from the collapse of the housing bubble, underwriting standards are still relatively tight (for homes anyway) which means, to quote WSJ, households are being squeezed "between rents they can't afford and homes they can't qualify for."

Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening materially on the back of Fed policy that, while ostensibly designed to rescue Main Street via the elusive "wealth effect", serves only to further enrich the wealthy by inflating the value of the assets most likely to be concentrated in the hands of those who were already rich in the first place. 

Whether Dan Price realized it or not, his move to raise the pay floor at Gravity was destined to be seen as an emphatic reaction to each of these economic realities. But as we saw last week with WalMart, addressing the rise of class segregation and the disappearance of the American Middle Class by resorting to across-the-board pay raises comes with a long list of unintended consquences and as Tony Hsieh learned when he attempted to transition Zappos to a "bossless" corporate culture, predicting how employees will respond to what seem like unequivocally worker-friendly policies is quite difficult. 

So while we wish Gravity the best of luck with the new pay structure, we fear that if anything, Dan Price's experience will serve as a cautionary tale to employers who may now think twice before embarking on one man crusades to address the nation's social and economic maladies and ultimately, if the company's very existence continues to be threatened by the fallout from the wage hike, Gravity's employees may soon find that the new pay floor is, like everything else in the world, subject to the law of... well, gravity.