Like many of you, I’ve been following closely the movements across the country seeking increased pay for people currently making minimum wage. In the county I live in, one city passed a ballot initiative increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour; unfortunately it was ruled to not apply to airport workers. My current home recently elected the first socialist council member in years; Kshama Sawant is now leading the charge to have a $15/hour minimum wage here. Mayor Murray has issued an order increasing the minimum wage of City of Seattle employees to $15/hour; he’s also created a panel to explore raising the wage in the rest of the City. That committee seems to be viewing $15/hour as a starting point for negotiations, suggesting that a lower wage, or a wage + compensation approach, may be warranted, while labor is demanding $15/hour without including benefits.
Minimum wage workers are doing HARD jobs. Someone standing over a hot grill, or a fryer, or washing cars, or loading / unloading baggage off of plane is working way harder than nearly everyone I know who is working at an office job. Office jobs certainly can have their own stresses, although really none of them are unique to working in an office. But when I go to work, I can sit down in a chair. I can take a bathroom break whenever I want. Unless I have a meeting that conflicts, I can take lunch whenever I want. If I get sick, I use one of my sick days. And with the money I earn, I can make my monthly (absurd) student loan payments, pay my rent, go out to dinner, and travel. It’s awesome.
But that’s the perk of having a college degree, right? NOPE. At least, it shouldn’t be. The ability to go to the bathroom when I need to, or have enough money to maybe eat out on occasion, or buy a birthday present for my loved ones, shouldn’t be a perk of having gone to college (or knowing someone who could get me a decent-paying job). It should be something all humans are deserving of. Honestly, I doubt any CEO could work a month doing the jobs of their lowest paid employees. It’s hard, it’s work that we all ask to exist (if we, you know, ever eat in, or eat out, or buy clothes, or travel), and we should be paying these people as though they are human beings.
I’ve heard the response that ‘they just need to work harder, and move up to management.’ Um, okay. Let’s say they do that. Then who will be doing their current job? Another human who is earning poverty wages. Unless you figure out a way to never need any humans to perform the labor that runs this city and this country, there will always be ‘entry-level’ jobs that people work in for years, and I think those people deserve respect and should have their humanity recognized. If someone is working 35 or 40 hours a week, there should be absolutely no scenario where they need food stamps to be able to feed themselves or their families.
I’ve also heard talk that we need to protect businesses because this will hit them hard. The Stranger had an interesting piece on this whole issue, but specifically pointed out the fact that the large chain businesses (AMC theaters, Walgreens) have the ability to support their local stores because they have access to more money overall than the smaller companies. That’s true, and something to consider. But let’s also point out that chain businesses are horrible examples of the ‘success’ of low wages: while they save money that they pass on to stockholders (not labor), they cost taxpayers $7 billion in benefits because the wages are not enough for the workers to buy food and housing for their families. That alone should be enough to convince the fiscal conservatives who are such huge fans of bootstraps, free markets, and no handouts that we should require the companies, not the government, to make sure their employees are fairly compensated.
But it is true that even if Wal-Mart is finally forced to once again give a damn about their employees, they’ll be in a better position to compete against the smaller guys. That’s why the only place where I see the merit of a brief (maybe two years) phased approach is with non-chain, smaller businesses. My understanding is that small businesses often operate with very small margins, and an immediate hit to their budgets could put them out of business forever. A couple of years would allow them time to adjust.
However, I do want to make a point on this: if your business (small or large) can only be successful by paying poverty level wages, then I don’t think it’s a very good business. You may make the most delicious baked goods that people wait in line for hours to eat, but if the people stocking your shelves and mopping up after you have to go home to a second or third job and food stamps for you to be able to do it? YOUR BUSINESS IS NOT REALLY SUCCESSFUL! The business owner probably works very, very hard too (especially with these tiny independent storefronts), but they have the added benefit of getting to enjoy the profits once they come in. The workers will still be going to their second and third jobs.
This raises another issue: does a $15/hour wage mean that only the wealthy will be able to start businesses? I mean, I think many businesses are already started by people who have managed to accumulate SOME wealth (enough to buy inventory, rent space, etc.). But will this limit new businesses from coming on board? I really hope not. If the minimum wage is not increased, I’d love to see some super low-interest loan program created that is available ONLY to people wanting to start a small business who pledge to pay a living wage to all employees. That could be incentive to pay a proper living wage without limiting the idea of small business ownership to only those willing to make up the differences by paying workers poverty wages.
I’m not an economist (although they don’t agree on anything, and are pretty bad at predicting things in general), so my understanding of business and labor lacks nuance for sure. I’ll be watching what’s going on very closely, and reading more about it, because from everything I’ve read so far I would be proud to live in one of the first major cities in the U.S. to recognize in the law that people who work minimum wage positions are actually people, and that business only works because of labor.