By William Farley and Max Hulen
The City of Ottumwa is considering investing in the development of a hotel property adjacent to the Bridgeview Center. The primary goal of the investment, as stated by Councilmember Mark Roe during his editorial board interview, is to attract visitor spending and offset the existing public subsidy to the Bridgeview Center. These goals address the needs of the City and local businesses, but what about the workers who run the hotel? Front-line workers at our hotels endure some of the lowest paying jobs in our community. If we want to be a good host to visitors, let’s put our best foot forward and make sure our hotel employees earn a living salary. This requires our private hotel partner to provide a wage rate and sufficient hours for front-line workers to make ends meet.
The arguments against paying a living wage are numerous. Opponents typically rely on espousing America’s success in relying on free-market principles, harkening back to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market place. Government interference in moving that hand is tied to socialism, and the ills that have befallen (fill in the blank with a country). Here are the fallacies with those arguments, well-intentioned as they may be. First, Adam Smith advocated for a living wage in his Wealth of Nations. His logic was simple. Employers need to pay a living wage so workers can raise families and continue to provide employees for future generations of capitalists. Second, our economy is already a blend of capitalism and socialism. This is particularly true in the tourism sector where government builds and subsidizes visitor attractions and convention facilities. In the words of our current White House Chief of Staff, “Get over it.”
Drawing the line on public involvement in visitor attractions, just before addressing the wage structure of front-line employees, is wrong. The debate over forming a public-private partnership should include addressing the health and well-being of city residents that will staff the new hotel. If we want our community to put our best foot forward, we need to have front-line employees who enjoy some modicum of economic security.