The idea began percolating, said Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, after he read an article on happiness. It showed that, for people who earn less than about $70,000, extra money makes a big difference in their lives.
His idea bubbled into reality Monday afternoon, when Price surprised his 120-person staff by announcing that he planned over the next three years to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk, customer service representative and salesman to a minimum of $70,000.
"Is anyone else freaking out right now?" Price asked after the clapping and whooping died down into a few moments of stunned silence. "I’m kind of freaking out."
If it’s a publicity stunt, it’s costly one. Price, who started the Seattle-based credit-card payment processing firm in 2004 at the age of 19, said he would pay for the wage increases by cutting his own salary from nearly $1 million to $70,000 and using 75 to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million in profit this year.
The paychecks of about 70 employees will grow, with 30 ultimately doubling their salaries, according to Ryan Pirkle, a company spokesman. The average salary at Gravity is $48,000 year.
Price’s small, privately owned company is by no means a bellwether, but his unusual proposal does speak to an economic issue that has captured national attention: the disparity between the soaring pay of chief executives and that of their employees.
The United States has one of the world’s largest pay gaps, with chief executives earning nearly 300 times what the average worker makes, according to some economists’ estimates. That is much higher than the 20-to-1 ratio recommended by Gilded Age magnates like J. Pierpont Morgan and the 20th century management visionary Peter Drucker.
"The market rate for me as a CEO compared to a regular person is ridiculous. It’s absurd," said Price, who said his main extravagances were snowboarding and picking up the bar bill. He drives a 12-year-old Audi, which he received in a barter for service from the local dealer.
"As much as I’m a capitalist, there is nothing in the market that is making me do it," he said, referring to paying wages that make it possible for his employees to go after the American dream, buy a house and pay for their children’s education.
Price started the company, which processed $6.5 billion in transactions for more than 12,000 businesses last year, in his dorm room at Seattle Pacific University with seed money from his older brother. The idea struck him a few years earlier when he was playing in a rock band at a local coffee shop. The owner started having trouble with the company that was processing credit card payments and felt ground down by the large fees charged.
When Price looked into it for her, he realized he could do it more cheaply and efficiently with better customer service.
Price said he wasn’t seeking to score political points with his plan.
From his friends, he heard stories of how tough it was to make ends meet even on salaries that were still well above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.
"They were walking me through the math of making 40 grand a year," he said, then describing a surprise rent increase or nagging credit card debt.
"I hear that every single week," he added. "That just eats at me inside."
Price said he wanted to do something to address the issue of inequality, although his proposal "made me really nervous" because he wanted to do it without raising prices for his customers or cutting service.
Of all the social issues that he felt he was in a position to do something about as a business leader, "that one seemed like a more worthy issue to go after."
He said he planned to keep his own salary low until the company earned back the profit it had before the new wage scale went into effect.
Hayley Vogt, a 24-year-old communications coordinator at Gravity who earns $45,000, said, "I’m completely blown away right now." She said has worried about covering rent increases and a recent emergency room bill.
"Everyone is talking about this $15 minimum wage in Seattle and it’s nice to work someplace where someone is actually doing something about it and not just talking about it," she said.