The Minimum Wage Debacle


When the clock ticks past midnight on New Year’s Eve and the calendar flips over to 2014, the minimum wage here in California will increase by a dollar from eight dollars per hour to nine dollars per hour.

You can’t get very far on $8 or $9 an hour, but this is what a lot of us have to contend with, year in and year out, with no relief in sight.  This is what the smiling server at the counter or the drive-through window of your favorite fast food place earns.

At one time, some of us justified this paltry compensation on the grounds that fast food provided part-time jobs for high school students, not only providing them with spending money, but also inducting them into the workforce, providing opportunities for advancement and indoctrinating them into the Protestant work ethic.  National fast food chains even received special exemptions from the federal minimum wage, allowing them to pay “subminimum” rates as a reward for providing jobs for large numbers of the hard-core unemployed.

It’s a nice theory, and maybe it held purchase, up to a point, thirty or forty years ago.  But today, that server who you can barely understand through the crackly drive-through speaker and who you gripe at for messing up your order is probably not saving up to buy a prom dress or to finance a Saturday night date.  More likely, she is a single mother with a couple of kids at home, scraping by with an emaciated paycheck that places her family below the poverty line.

Many fast food workers have to resort to public assistance to keep themselves and their families afloat.  Some fast food employers make a point of encouraging employees to take advantage of whatever aid may be available from local charitable organizations and federal or state assistance programs.  Why not?  Let’s get someone else to help them out so that we don’t have to pay them more and we don’t have to reduce our profit margins.

Please think twice before shooting dirty looks at the person in line in front of you at the supermarket who is paying with an EBT card.  You may be thinking that this lazy person is living off the dole and sucking the taxes right out of your pocket.  Chances are, however, that this person is employed and contributing to the American economy, just like you are.  Only he or she is trying to support a family on minimum wage or less and probably needs to make a trip to the local food bank when the paycheck is spent and the EBT balance reads 25 cents at the end of the month.

This is also the person who doesn’t work a regular schedule, eight hours a day, like you do.  Your neighbor’s work schedule changes all the time, based on shifting patterns of customer volume and the whims of a young assistant manager.  If business slows down unexpectedly, this employee will probably be sent home, further reducing the week’s wages.  To help make up for this unreliable stream of income, he or she may be working two or three jobs just to pay the rent, keep the heat and lights on, and put food on the table.  The kids may be receiving free breakfast and lunch at school, thanks to federal programs, but they still have to be fed dinner and on the weekends and during school vacations.  It’s a struggle to plan and prepare healthful meals when you’re always working and have to kiss goodbye a large part of what you earn to pay for child care.  The temptation to buy cheap crap full of sugar and sodium is ever-present.  Stick it in the microwave and, voilà, dinner.  Because you’re just so tired.  And it never ends, Lord, it never ends.

So it should come as no surprise that fast food workers around the country skipped work shifts to stage protests today, calling for a minimum wage of $15 per hour.  The fast food industry thinks such demands are ridiculous, citing a significant increase in the prices of their products that would result from such a measure.

Of course, this argument is very convenient for the fast food industry.  Careful what you ask for, people, because your favorite Big Mac or Whopper will end up costing you ten dollars.  Your beloved Dollar Menu will now be the $4 Menu.

I don’t have to tell my smart and insightful readers that the fast food industry is full of shit.  They care not what their prices are as long as the public continues buying and their profits continue to increase.  Their only concern is that some consumers may be priced out of the market and reduce the frequency with which they take the kids to visit Ronald at the Playplace.

The fast food industry also cites the likely paradoxical effect of job cuts should protesters get what they want.  Now there’s an interesting argument.  Are they saying that they are currently overstaffed but can afford to keep more employees than necessary on the payroll due to the low wages paid?  Why does this sound as if they are lying?  No employer is going to carry surplus employees when cutting out the fat could result into the additional profits going into their pockets.  I realize this is a highly simplistic explanation of a complex economic phenomenon, but there you have it.

I suppose I should stop picking on the fast food industry in general, and on its poster child, McDonald’s, in particular.  There are plenty of other industries around that subject employees to the same minimum wage indignities.  Fellow blogger and Californian Michael from Sophoxymoria tells a blunt and brutal tale of what it’s like to work in the Central Valley feed mills.  He’d like to find more lucrative work but realizes that this is easier said than done.  “I’ve been debating what to do,” he writes.  “I saw my paycheck and they bumped me back down to 8 bucks an hour, yes that is minimum wage, if they could pay me less I’m sure they gladly would.”  Michael goes on to gripe (and sometimes laugh) about uncaring supervisors, the disposability of temporary employees, and employers that look the other way rather than address rampant on-the-clock drug use and sexual harassment.  (And he is a connoisseur of the taco trucks in Turlock, Modesto, Keyes and Denair.)

Some of the news reports are indicating that participants in today’s protests were able to skip out on their shifts at fast food restaurants because protest organizers paid them $50 for the day, about what they would have earned at their jobs.  Beyond the minimum wage issue, protesters are asking for the industry to unionize.  So it is no surprise that some employers are blaming the hullabaloo on outside organizations who have their own agendas.  This conveniently allows low-wage employers to dismiss their own roles in creating the problems that resulted in the protests in the first place.

Here in California, we have it better than in many parts of the country.  True, six states have higher minimum wages than California’s, but at least we’re doing better than the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 per hour for the past 4½ years.  Five states in the deep south have no state minimum wage at all, and four states have minimum wages lower than $7.25 per hour (employers there must still follow federal minimum wage requirements).

What about other countries?  Everyone knows that the United States is the richest country in the world and that the freedoms we enjoy have immigrants from the four corners of the earth banging down our doors to get in.  Yet our federal minimum wage is lower than that of many industrialized nations, including Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Australia.

Come 2016, California’s low-wage workers will get yet another dollar per hour in their paychecks when the state minimum wage reaches $10 per hour.  Unless, of course, activists are successful in their efforts to convince Congress to double the federal minimum wage before then.

In the meantime, Michael and thousands of his fellow low-wage workers will continue to barely survive on their meager earnings, taxing already underfunded government antipoverty programs and further squeezing churches and charitable organizations doing their utmost to prevent hunger and homelessness.

Happy holidays.



5 thoughts on “The Minimum Wage Debacle

  1. Another issue is that fast food franchises often will only give part time hours. Even if the wage for fast food were raised to $15/ hr as the protesters wish, this would still put a family of 4 below the poverty line at part time hours. Yet another issue to consider is that if the wages are raised to the point where a person will not qualify for various subsidies and assistance, the loss of those subsidies might make the net result an effective pay cut. A person will be faced with paying full price for housing, the loss of food assistance, and medicaid, yet not have the increased revenue to pay for those things himself.

    The union organizers would profit handsomely if they could unionize the millions of FFWs in this country so their incentives are not purely charitable, but at this point the unions are the only people in the corner of the FFWs.

    • All good points. Along with raising the federal minimum wage, I believe we need to reassess the threshold levels for receipt of various types of public assistance. Anything we can get done will be a step in the right direction.

  2. Pingback: Money can’t buy you happiness, right? | Michael's Blog

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