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VOICES: Small business looks at minimum wage increase

  • Mark & Wendy Oyama

Businesses on Kaua‘i have weathered many storms, but none have been quite as long or as devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic. As a small island community with limited resources and significantly lower visitor counts, local businesses have severely felt the brunt of the pandemic shutdowns.

Contemporary Flavors Catering has pretty much ground to a halt due to cancelled weddings, no graduation parties, or large gatherings for almost a year. Although we have been fortunate to continue serving customers takeout meals at Mark’s Place (our plate-lunch spot in Lihu‘e), we have lost over 55% of our revenue since the pandemic began.

This pandemic has forced us to make some tough choices, cutting hours for every working staff member, and making the heartbreaking decision to lay off about a quarter of our catering staff. In over 20 years of running our business, this was one of the hardest things we have ever had to do to survive.

It’s true that we’ve managed to survive, but only by taking some difficult but necessary steps. The cost of doing business in this new environment, while following important health and safety protocols, will continue to eat away at our margins. To add to these costs, the state legislature is now moving closer to raising the minimum wage, which would take effect next year.

If our business were booming, we would gladly consider increasing the pay of our employees, but with no new event bookings for the foreseeable future, and the uncertainty about when visitors will return to Kaua‘i, even a small increase could spell the end for our business.

We understand the importance of a living wage and the state law that requires providing healthcare benefits to our employees who work at least 20 hours a week. Our company pays full medical benefits to our staff, which go beyond what is required by state law.

As someone who has dealt with serious medical issues in the past, I recognize the importance of having that extra safety net of health insurance.

While the money we spend on our employee’s healthcare may not be cash in their pockets, it surely goes towards their well-being and, by extension, that of our island community. All that could change if we face an increase in the minimum wage.

We all want to see the people of Kaua‘i thrive. We are one big ‘Ohana, and our business has long supported local organizations, schools and annual events that make Kaua‘i special. I’ve never felt more proud to be born and raised on Kaua‘i as when I see neighbors helping neighbors.

Right now, we need help from our state legislators – not another layer of expenses during a time when businesses like ours are teetering on the brink of existence.

Please help our small businesses by focusing on recovery now, so we can take care of our employees today and try to build for a brighter tomorrow.


Mark &Wendy Oyama own and operate Contemporary Flavors Catering and Mark’s Place in Lihu‘e.

  1. Mark Spencer March 2, 2021 5:17 am Reply

    Yet again another great solution from the state, make it even more difficult for your business to survive by adding additional cost to operate. Kill the golden goose (tourism) and at the same time demand more golden eggs. With the logic being employed by legislators in Hawaii throwing gas on a fire must be the best way to extinguish the fire burning down Kauai’s business community. Open Kauai now. Let the small business that serve locals and tourists recover help them get back on their feet. Stop the insanity of destructive knee jerk polices that only prolonged the misery brought on by COVID.

  2. Rich Belmont March 2, 2021 5:24 am Reply

    It is now early in 2021. The proposed increase takes effect in mid-2022. I don’t think “because Covid” is a valid argument against a proposal you seem to otherwise favor.

  3. YuCalJoe March 2, 2021 5:50 am Reply

    Well said! First, please allow me to thank you for making such wonderful food! As to the minimum wage increase, let’s look at past practices. Minimum wage when I was a teenager was $1.75 per hour. It would be slowly increased over the coming years based on the strength of the economy (local and federal), and the cost of living (more local than federal). This slow and managed increase seemed to work best. Ignoring the need for an increase never works. But a mandate for a federal minimum wage is nothing more than a tax increase with the trickle down effect of price increases for every all goods and services. Thinking about taxes, tax on an income of $15 per hour is higher than $10 per hour. Federal and state governments get to collect more tax dollars for doing nothing more in return (unless they go on a drunken sailor spending spree like here in CA), and the people pay more taxes and higher prices. Who’s winning with this program? Like the pandemic, use real data at the local level to drive decisions. One size does not fit all. Use a formula, not a mandate. Then all goods and service providers can better manage their operating expenses. Don’t believe me? Watch the prices at the grocery store go through the roof as the employee that is making a living wage in a lower cost of living region of the country whose job it is to package cereal get a 50% increase in pay as a result of the mandate. That employee’s company will have to increase prices to cover the additional costs. Who pays? Everyone. Best of luck Mark!!!

  4. Puhi Bob March 2, 2021 5:57 am Reply

    Thank you for sharing your concerns, Mark and Wendy, and for everything you have done for our community. Every policy decision has tradeoffs. The CBO estimates that raising the minimum wage would result in the loss of about 900,000 jobs, but it would also lift 1.5 million out of poverty. What to do?

    One possible solution that would not impact small businesses like Contemporary Flavors is to radically increase the earned income tax credit, expand eligibility, and pay it out monthly. The result is people earning the least would see there incomes rise as if they were earning $15/hr, but businesses do not need to pay higher wages. The higher EIC could be paid through a wealth tax on billionaires. Think about it. Who should be contributing more? Mark and Wendy? Or people like Bezos and Zuckerburg?

  5. Marie March 2, 2021 11:56 am Reply

    I used to own a business for 28 years. Raising minimum wage costs everyone. It’s not like you miraculously get more business to pay for the extra cost and when you raise product to try to compensate you lose business. Wages automatically go up when your business is doing well because you want to keep your employees and you are thriving.
    Minimum wage is used for the new untrained employee. Most places give a raise when the employee turns out to be good and you want to keep them.
    But when minimum wage and costs are a factor an increase takes away from the employees that have worked for you longer. You only have so much money to spend on employee wages and then it goes to the newer employee versus the longer term employee. I watched when the recession had hit years ago that the gap narrowed between the newer employee and my longer term employees and there was nothing I could do about it as I didn’t have extra funds to give raises to everyone.
    Sure, it’s not an “instant’ raise, but it will take a few years for a lot of businesses to recover. Just because covid might ebb doesn’t mean you instantly will have all your business back. Raising costs will not help anyone, especially when so many businesses are struggling and need some time (and help) to recover. It doesn’t do anyone any good when the business doesn’t have the money to replace old equipment or pay rent or worse closes and then there is no job at all.

  6. David Presley March 2, 2021 8:10 pm Reply

    Yeah, dirty peasants. They don’t deserve a working wage. If they had a brain they would be the master. Right? Stupid government looking out for the common man. What’s next? Child labor laws, equal rights, the end of slavery?

    1. Gimme a break March 2, 2021 10:41 pm Reply

      There’s lots of room for constructive debate and discussion on “best” course of action in these times, but one thing that seems clear to me is that Kauai needs more entrepreneurs like Mark and Wendy. They are hardly the spoiled, anti-employee elitists that Mr. Presley seems to suggests. The only thing more tiring than Mr. Presley’s comment is the trite sarcasm he uses to deliver it.

      The fact that much of our elected state leadership has the same sentiment of Mr. Presley – that the small business owners that are left standing one year into the pandemic aren’t doing enough to contribute to the state’s economy – is not only disappointing but indicative of a lack of understanding of what drives an economy. Other than taxing tourism and the businesses that need it, they don’t know what to do. Thank goodness for folks like the Obamas.

  7. Linda McDonald March 3, 2021 10:36 am Reply

    Totally agree. The wage increase will be phased in over several years, long after the pandemic is a memory. We need to help everyone, people trying to live on sub standard wages included, not just business iwners

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