For Suzie Ford, the founder and co-owner of NoDa Brewing Company, in Charlotte, North Carolina, paying her employees decent wages is critical.

The company, which brews IPAs, pale ales, and porters, has 44 employees and annual revenue of $6 million, and it's growing fast. All of her workers earn more than the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage, and roughly half make more than $15 an hour. Yet the national dialogue about increasing the minimum wage to the $15 level makes her slightly uncomfortable. She says she understands the need for employees to get a decent wage, but estimates that an across-the-board increase of that size would cost the company about $40,000 annually.

For a small business like NoDa, that's a lot of money, and an amount that's likely to continue increasing as the company adds employees, which it plans to do over the next year. Ford says an increase to $15 an hour would slow her hiring plans, so she thinks a smaller increase would be better.

"I think $10 an hour is a good place to start," she says.

Few things hit business owners in the pocketbook harder than the wages they pay their employees. With the country locked in a national debate about what an appropriate living wage should be, pay--in particular the minimum hourly rate--has become a sticking point for many businesses and their workers. The importance of the issue has already led large national chains including McDonald's and Walmart to phase in pay increases for their low-wage workers. 

The issue is particularly important as the nation celebrates National Small Business Week, which acknowledges the important contributions small business owners make to the economy. The event started Monday and lasts through Saturday.

Many business owners probably share Ford's sentiments that the minimum wage was meant only to compensate entry-level workers as they earn job skills, rather than form the basis of a long-term model for employment. Yet economists and policy experts say that view fails to take into account the changing realities of the workplace, where it's harder to get good-paying jobs, and where wages have been stagnant for decades.

Multiple options for wage increases

In today's dollar terms, the federal minimum wage, which was last increased in 2009, hasn't gone up since 1969, business experts say. "Relative to prices over time, workers earn less now," says Mark Price, a labor economist for the Keystone Research Center, a nonpartisan policy think tank in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Over the past few years, the Obama administration has made an effort to address the issue by proposing to raise the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour. There's also a national movement underway by labor groups such as the Service Employees International Union, which represents fast-food workers, to increase the minimum even higher, to $15.

Currently 29 states have a minimum wage above the federal standard, and 24 cities and counties have minimums above state levels, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And some locales, such as Seattle, have gone even further by requiring larger companies to increase their minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018, while smaller companies have until 2021 to comply with the law. Similarly, California and New York recently passed legislation that would increase their minimum wage levels to $15 in phases over the next few years. 

Meanwhile, the minimum wage has gotten a lot of attention in the presidential race. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders wants a federal minimum of $15. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton essentially favors a minimum wage of $12 an hour, though she has said she prefers to leave it up to states to decide. On the Republican side, real estate billionaire Donald Trump does not favor raising the minimum wage.

UPDATE: After this article was published, Trump changed his position, telling CNN that he is open to raising the minimum wage, though he did not specify to what level. 

Just who's right is a matter of considerable debate. Raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from its current level, a 39 percent increase, would lift close to one million workers out of poverty, according to a 2014 report by the Congressional Budget Office. On the other hand, increasing the minimum to that amount two years ago might have cost the economy about 500,000 jobs, or 0.3 percent of the workforce, by 2016, the CBO found. (An increase to $9, which some politicians proposed as a first step, would have cost the economy 100,000 jobs over the past two years.)

No comprehensive study has yet been done to estimate the impact of a $15 an hour federal minimum wage on jobs. Yet conservative opponents of California's move to increase its minimum wage to $15 by 2022 say it could cost the state as many as 700,000 jobs, including in the manufacturing sector, where 600,000 workers earn less than the new state minimum.

More than half of entrepreneurs favor raising the federal minimum wage, and half said they favor raising it to $15, according to a Manta survey of 1,100 small business owners from last month.

Statistics aside, a higher minimum wage, particularly one that would gradually rise to $15, could be good for small businesses, Price says. Among other things, it could reduce turnover, which is expensive for small companies, by giving employees a bigger incentive to stay at their jobs. And it could cut the other way, giving business owners a greater sense of investment in their employees.

And that sense of mutual investment is something Ford says is critical, adding that it's one reason her turnover is already low.

"Most of our people we get with no prior experience, and we train them," she says. "As they gain experience, it comes with additional salary and wage increases."

Published on: May 4, 2016