Study: Seattle $15 Minimum Wage Leading to Fewer Hours, Fewer Jobs

The first academic study looking at the $15 an hour Seattle minimum wage shows mixed results for workers.

While wages rose roughly $6 a week on average, hours worked fell. Most worrisome was that about 1.2% of those workers lost their jobs.


So what did they find? People are getting paid a higher wage -- and yet, earnings didn’t rise much, because people are also working less. People who made less than $11 an hour before the law took effect saw, on average, a modest bump in their paycheck (about $72 every three months). The median number of hours worked fell by about four hours per quarter.

If you can make slightly more money by working slightly fewer hours, who wouldn’t take that deal? The trouble is that this is the average effect. If the cutbacks in hours worked are "lumpy" -- if some people saw big reductions, while others saw little or none -- then the people whose hours were reduced a lot could well be worse off, while the people who got the wage hikes and the same number of hours might be substantially better off. This is particularly true if one of those “lumps” consists of people who become unemployed entirely.

Which it seems to. According to the study, the share of those low-wage workers who were still employed after the law took effect fell by 1.2 percent. That’s not Great Depression-level unemployment by any means. And some of it could consist of people who would, say, rather be home with their kids, and who no longer need to work because their partner just got a substantial raise thanks to Seattle’s higher minimum wage. However: 1.2 percent is not nothing. And given that it’s not really all that easy to support a family on $11 an hour in Seattle, I’m pretty skeptical that this represents a lot of voluntary unemployment. There’s also evidence that about 3 percent of previous workers had to look for work outside the city of Seattle.

This matters because unemployment matters. Long-term unemployment tends to make people permanently unhappy even when their basic material needs are taken care of. So substantial and permanent declines in the share of workers who are employed is a huge cost, and I’d want to see some pretty big benefits to justify it.