Editor’s Note: While our editorial policy is not to print unsigned commentaries or letters submitted to the Community Journal, this well-written and thoughtful commentary prompted us to make an exception. It is from an individual who, as you will read, has been on both sides of the employment fence and makes a compelling argument in support of their opinion.
A few months ago I sat in one of my favorite casual dining spots with a dear friend. We laughed and enjoyed being able to escape the demands of our busy lives and careers in order to catch up. Suddenly, the restaurant was surrounded by a literal busload of protesters. The restaurant grew still and uncommonly silent as we all looked out of the windows to see what cause, what social ill, what dilemma was being dealt a public, bullhorn led blow by those who were descending upon us. Soon one of the protesters aimed their signs right at us as it became clear that the restaurant, a small but notable national chain, was the target of the protest. “$15/hr minimum wage,” read the large black and white letters of the sign. The manager, who we knew well, came over to our windowed table and explained that the protesters were fast food workers who want that national minimum wage raised to fifteen dollars an hour. Immediately I cycled through a range of emotions from intrigue to indignation. I reflected on their demands from two distinct vantage points; employee and employer of which I have been both. I know what it is to wait for my check to almost magically “appear” in my account at midnight from my employer and I know what it is to be other end of the transaction and knowing concretely that there is nothing magical about the process, the payroll, the taxes, or the urgency of payday for my employees.
Until I became an employer the entire process of pay rate, raises, promotions and payroll seemed to be nothing more than my boss making a decision in my favor. “Hey, what’s another dollar or two?” I thought until I learned as an employer that those two dollars an hour on my check was matched on the other end in fees, payroll taxes and other things I hadn’t considered and that my raise would demand more than the seemingly measly two dollars I was asking for. I understood the ignorance behind the demand. These protesters simply could not fathom the depth of the economic and moral impact a $15 minimum wage would have on this country.
After leaving the restaurant I turned on the television and heard the protesters who had been filmed by an area television station and listened to their concerns about feeding their families and how tough it was to take care of a family on minimum wage. In the following months I began to see more and more newspaper articles and television news reports on the issue and it seemed as though no one wanted to wade into the deep of this issue and I understand why. To deal with this issue one has to give a hard and cold truth to tens of thousands of people who, for varying reasons, may not want to hear it. Addressing the demand for a $15 minimum wage demands a certain level of truth and somehow this nation has marginalized truth and made it shameful and therefore silenced even the most astute for fear of being castigated as “politically incorrect.”
The fear of dealing with this issue and speaking openly about it may actually cause it to surge ahead leading to an economic and moral crisis of which this nation has not seen. This issue is our bleak Monday before our Black Tuesday. We have to make a good decision here or prepare for a market that cannot right itself economically or morally. When this nation was founded, through all of the undeniable social and moral failures and ills, it was founded on hard work. People worked hard physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually to make this country great. Hard work was a part of life and nothing to be avoided. Toil was seen as a rite of passage and without it one was looked down upon by those who had actually worked to get where they were. As new immigrants came to this country – they worked. The Irish, the German the Italian and others all came and –worked.
They worked tirelessly and were often treated poorly, but they pressed their way and kept working. None of the groups demanded the system be changed, they fought through the system with the sweat of their brow and provided for their families, educated their children and went from immigrant to entrepreneur because they were not afraid to work. African Americans had to fight on innumerous fronts to be free then to be equal all while, you guessed it, working! They worked from sun up to sun down to provide for their families and make sure that their children were educated even if it meant facing water hoses, attack dogs and imprisonment. They, like so many other cultural groups, worked to secure their place at the table because they knew that nothing was going to be handed to them. Less than 250 years later something has happened to the ensuing generations of Americans who have not had to face such daunting beginnings. What we refused to address is the attitude of entitlement that has swept the nation and people have come to believe that their mere existence entitles them to the same wages and amenities of others even when they have not worked for them.
A fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage translates to a $30,000 a year income based on a 2,000 hour work year not factoring in overtime. So in theory, a household with two full time fast food workers would gross $60,000 annually without so much as a high school education. How would you convince teenagers to finish high school let alone go to college if they could make $30,000 working the milkshake machine? What would you tell the new teacher who spent countless hours in college and subsequent practicums and continuing education classes who makes just over what the kid on the milkshake machine makes when they have to pay back student loans for the next 10 years. In a country that is already struggling educationally, creating a lucrative career out of what should be a stepping stone to management in the fast food industry or a bridge to an outside career endangers our entire way of life.
Surely this nation’s leaders cannot think that they will give fast food workers and unskilled laborers a 100% pay raise and not have to do the same for every industry fueled by skilled (and often multi-degreed) laborers that protest and they, unlike unskilled laborers, would have good grounds for their argument because they have worked for such an increase. Imagine every teacher demanding double. They would site the fact that many spend as many hours working at home on grading papers and creating lesson plans as they do interacting with students; so certainly they should be paid double. They would also site the thousands of dollars of their own money they have put into their respective classrooms over the years. Consider every highway worker demanding double because of the danger attached to their work.
Picture police officers refusing to deal with crime until, they too, had their salaries doubled. They would point out that the person on the milkshake machine is not in any danger while they risk their lives every day to protect and serve the community. To them, bullets trump burgers, so they too will be waiting for their increase. The truth is this nation is on an economic ventilator, floating loans from countless countries. If the nation is struggling, how do leaders think that business owners have the economic capacity to pay all of its workers double on demand? The truth is a budgetary review would prove that even Washington D.C. could not double the pay of all of the nation’s federal workers and stay in business. So why do they want entities far smaller and less funded then they to attempt to do so? A $15 minimum wage says that no one has to start from the ground floor. That by your mere birth you are entitled to live as those who worked to get where they are without you having to achieve or do anything to earn it. Just show up, day one and $30,000 a year is yours. Pure nonsense. It sets a bad tone, would gut our high schools of children we are desperately trying to retain through flimsy compulsory education statutes and in certain industries would do little more than endanger already vulnerable populations as many people would fire citizens and hire undocumented workers they could pay under the table and keep their costs low enough to survive.
To the worker that feels it’s too hard trying to raise a family on minimum wage, you are right. We agree with that statement 100%! However, what that worker fails to understand is that minimum wage was never meant to subsidize a family. Minimum wage--and often the jobs attached--are designed as entry level starting points for teenagers whose only real worry is getting the latest sneakers or the best seats at the concert. It wasn’t designed to support an entire household. If someone wants more than minimum wage we are all for it!
However, they should know that our country stands united in our collective expectation that they work to achieve more than the minimum. Minimum skills, minimum education or minimum relevant work experience equals minimum wage. Perhaps it is time to take a look at why one makes the starting point the finishing line then wants a trophy for a race they didn’t run. --Anonymous