A union-backed push for $15 minimum wages steamrolled across the country over the past few years, seemingly unstoppable by economic and anecdotal data of its harmful impacts on workers and businesses. 

Now, that effort has run up against a powerful adversary: COVID-19.

Cities and municipalities are rethinking legislated increases to their lowest wages so that they don’t push businesses temporarily closed by the novel coronavirus to shutter entirely.

For example, Hayward, California is seeking to delay a recently passed $15 minimum wage because of the impacts of COVID-19 on businesses.

I have seen a significant impact on businesses in Hayward,” Councilwoman Elisa Marquez said about the virus. “What I am trying to do is preserve jobs in Hayward.

In 2016, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a statewide minimum wage push for $15 an hour by 2023. This year, small businesses had to pay employees at least $12 an hour and large businesses $13 unless local minimum wages were higher. Local governments could adopt their own minimum wage rules as long they did not exceed what the state requires.

A trade group, the California Restaurant Association, sent a letter to the governor and legislature asking for a reprieve from scheduled minimum wage increases:

In the midst of the COVID-19 public health threat, you took aggressive, necessary steps to protect the public health and safety of our state’s residents. Unfortunately, the trade-off for these protective public health measures has been a near decimation of our state’s restaurant industry. And now, as the economic crisis begins to rapidly unfold, we believe the state has a moral obligation to take equally aggressive steps to address the economic harm caused by these measures to our state’s residents.

The industry group says that as many as 30,000 California restaurants could close permanently because of coronavirus restrictions that forced the closure of dining rooms to customers.

In the midwest, the city of Quincy, Illinois is grappling with this issue as city leaders are calling for a halt to a statewide minimum wage increase, set to go into effect in July.

Small businesses in retail and dining operate on thin margins. Some estimates put the profit margin at 3-5 percent for restaurants.

Labor costs are one of the big three drivers of expenditures. When labor costs rise due to mandated pay increases, employers respond by decreasing expenses or increasing revenue.

Increasing foot traffic is not easy, but in light of mandated coronavirus closures and social distancing, stores, restaurants and bars have seen foot traffic plummet to nothing or nearly nothing. 

Beefing up take-out and delivery cannot compare to dining in. It doesn’t help the servers and bartenders who rely on customers dining in to make tips. They have just watched their jobs evaporate. 

During the recent economic boom that likely ended last month, the restaurant industry was on a strong path for growth. According to the National Restaurant Association, this industry was projected to employ one in 10 Americans (15.6 million people) in 2020 and expected to add 1.6 million jobs over the next decade reaching 17.2 million by 2030.

In view of the hardship many non-essential small businesses like stores, restaurants and bars face, they understandably want to halt the pain of mandated wage increases that eat away at the little revenue they are making –if they are earning any at all– and that will undermine their ability to regain their economic footing when they reopen.

While suspending minimum wage increases now because of coronavirus is a prudent step, an even more prudent step would be to repeal or cancel future increases.

A $15 minimum wage has always been an arbitrary goal that promises the lowest paid workers a secure life, but really erodes their opportunities. 

Raising minimum wages in good economic times may give some workers more in their paychecks, but the reduced hours and layoffs they trigger inflict even greater harm on other workers. A Congressional Budget Office study concluded that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour would leave potentially over 1 million workers jobless.

Many businesses were raising wages before the novel coronavirus landed on our nation’s doorstep, because of the tight jobs market and the tax cuts. We are now in a very different economic climate. 

Jobless claims rose last week to over 3 million due to coronavirus closures, how much worse could unemployment get for low-wage workers if this outbreak lasts into the summer, just as minimum wage hikes kick in?