Saturday, April 25, 2015

What We Need Before a $15 Minimum Wage

Happy Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist!!!!!
Today, I am FINALLY posting some thoughts on the issue of the minimum wage increase. I’m not hugely into politics, so I do not claim to be a professional analyst of economics or anything in the political spectrum. But, for the past week and a half, I have been researching this issue, trying to become aware of its various facets, and formulating my thoughts into a blog post. I’m sharing my musings with y’all here, as I continue to process them and try to help other people become more aware of what’s happening in the world! Also, please note: I’m not a fan of internet arguments; I’m just bringing forth my thoughts as a Catholic woman in today’s world.

 During half of high school, and for a whole summer a few years ago, I worked in the restaurant industry. I loved my jobs; whether it was working at the register, running food to tables, or stocking a buffet, I enjoyed interacting with the restaurant guests and my co-workers. And, at times, my heart would be incredibly touched by the people I met.  

One of the men I worked with at my first job was a single dad. He was so proud of his son, and had so much love for him. Working this restaurant job was a hard way to bring in money for his son. Sometimes, this man would show up to work exhausted, because he would get up super early in the morning to sell his plasma—all so that he could care for his little boy.

Several of the women I worked with were single moms. I would see these ladies work hour upon hour, fighting to make ends meet for their children. It would always fill and break my heart whenever a mom’s small children would come visit her while she was working. I saw first-hand how these women desperately wanted to be with their children, but how they sacrificed and worked to provide for them off of a restaurant wage. These women truly inspired me. (hyperlink)

Some of my coworkers were just trying to get by, living without a particular meaning or purpose. Day by day, they would spend hours at work, trying to scrape by and make a living.

I also worked with some people who were trying to support their entire families (of 3+ kids) off of a restaurant job. They loved their families and wanted to provide for them—but it was sure hard off of a restaurant minimum wage.

Knowing these people and their stories can make us feel like we need to jump on the “Fight for $15” bandwagon. After all, if we automatically put the minimum wage at $15, won’t the problems and hardships of all these people be solved? Furthermore, the push for a $15 minimum wage has become associated with the dignity of the worker. “You are worth more” was splashed across one poster at a protest that I saw via the internet. Yes, you are worth more. The human person is of priceless worth with incredible dignity and value that a mere dollar sign cannot convey. Yet, with the marketing of the “Fight for $15” campaign, questioning the low-wage movement can look bad. Oh, you don’t want to join the “Fight for $15?” Well, you must not think that low wage workers have value and worth. (Such a false assumption! Yet one that I can easily see people making)

 Another difficulty comes in now that the “Fight for $15” campaign has extended to all low-wage workers, not just a couple industries. So, (for example) adjunct professors are being lumped in with fast-food workers. Here’s the thing: the skill level and work required of an adjunct professor and a register operator are different. I’ve been taught by some adjunct professors, and I’ve found that they pour hours into research, class preparation, grading, and working one-on-one with students. And call me crazy, but I don’t think that my part-time register job deserved the same hourly pay as one of my adjunct professors. Yes, our work is important: a professor passes on knowledge and wisdom, and I gave people food that nourished them. But, our jobs were quite different.

As I’ve read different articles (from both sides of the argument), I’ve begun to realize that the “Fight for $15” campaign appears to be a Band-Aid. An “easy solution” that is supposed to solve a bunch of problems in one fell swoop.

However, to quote Pope Pius XI, “The just amount of pay, however, must be calculated not on a single basis but on several, as Leo XIII already wisely declared in these words: "To establish a rule of pay in accord with justice, many factors must be taken into account." By this statement he plainly condemned the shallowness of those who think that this most difficult matter is easily solved by the application of a single rule or measure - and one quite false. For they are greatly in error who do not hesitate to spread the principle that labor is worth and must be paid as much as its products are worth, and that consequently the one who hires out his labor has the right to demand all that is produced through his labor. How far this is from the truth is evident from that We have already explained in treating of property and labor.” (Quadragesimo Anno, 66-68)

The whole situation of low-wage workers and poverty involves many factors. Pope Pius XI made very profoundly important remarks in Quadragesimo Anno, and I think it’s important to look at some of his further discussion: (the bolded emphasis is mine)

“In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family. That the rest of the family should also contribute to the common support, according to the capacity of each, is certainly right, as can be observed especially in the families of farmers, but also in the families of many craftsmen and small shopkeepers…” (71)

“In determining the amount of the wage, the condition of a business and of the one carrying it on must also be taken into account; for it would be unjust to demand excessive wages which a business cannot stand without its ruin and consequent calamity to the workers. If, however, a business makes too little money, because of lack of energy or lack of initiative or because of indifference to technical and economic progress, that must not be regarded a just reason for reducing the compensation of the workers. But if the business in question is not making enough money to pay the workers an equitable wage because it is being crushed by unjust burdens or forced to sell its product at less than a just price, those who are thus the cause of the injury are guilty of grave wrong, for they deprive workers of their just wage and force them under the pinch of necessity to accept a wage less than fair.” (72)

“Lastly, the amount of the pay must be adjusted to the public economic good. We have shown above how much it helps the common good for workers and other employees, by setting aside some part of their income which remains after necessary expenditures, to attain gradually to the possession of a moderate amount of wealth. But another point, scarcely less important, and especially vital in our times, must not be overlooked: namely, that the opportunity to work be provided to those who are able and willing to work. This opportunity depends largely on the wage and salary rate, which can help as long as it is kept within proper limits, but which on the other hand can be an obstacle if it exceeds these limits. For everyone knows that an excessive lowering of wages, or their increase beyond due measure, causes unemployment.” (74)
~Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931).

Keeping in mind what Pope Pius XI wrote, I think it’s a bit unreasonable to look at the situation of low-wage workers and decide to federally mandate a $15 minimum wage. Does hiking up the minimum wage take into account those people who are operating businesses and have a limited budget for labor? Does this take into account the fact that some people still may not be able to support their families on $15/hour because of the cost of living or the fact that they don’t know how to handle money? Does a $15 minimum wage solve the deep underlying problems?

You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realize that if wages hike up, then the cost of living will also increase. There are several cities where the cost of living is already enormous. In fact, just last week I was talking with a man who lives in L.A. He told me that, in order to live decently, you have to make a ridiculous amount of money to get by with the high living costs. So yes, a $15 minimum wage would put more money in peoples’ pockets and bank accounts. But an increase in the cost of living would require more money from them.

Also, consider how restaurant and company owners only have a certain amount of money budgeted to spend on labor costs. At my first restaurant job, there were many times when workers were sent home because of labor costs. In order for their companies and restaurants to work and exist, owners have to make some kind of profit. A huge increase in minimum wage would impact the labor budget. If my first boss was required by the Federal Government to pay me $15/hour, I would have been excited to make that money. BUT, I have to ask myself: Would they have been able to afford letting me work as many hours? Would I have been sent home early more often? I know that there’s no way to prove one way or another on these questions, but I think that they are worth asking. On this topic, I recommend checking out thisarticle, and specifically the following quotation from it:

“Labor is 30% of my overhead. A 50% increase in minimum wage would raise it to 45%. It’s already tough to offer a business to the community and keep my head above water. Honestly, I’d go under with that kind of increase. For most this is a first time job – they come to me with no experience. Others make tips which supplements their wage.”

 I don’t claim to have all the answers or wisdom. And I’m definitely not well-versed in politics. But I’m just trying to use my own common sense, Catholic upbringing, and experience working in the restaurant industry to make sense of this situation. What do we need before we talk about a $15 minimum wage? Here are four of my suggestions:

Respect the dignity of each person. There are times when it can feel like you’re being seen as a “worker” and not a “human being who is doing the work” to a boss or manager. Being expected to drop everything to work a cash register, make food, bus tables, and wash dishes for hours overtime can feel a little demeaning at times. “The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum #20)

Find joy in your work. In those times when I would have to work for hours I wasn’t scheduled for, not being able to attend parties or dances I had planned on, love for God and others kept me going. I find a lot of joy in loving others through working at restaurants, and glorifying God in every dish that I wash and every conversation that I have. Yes, working for hours on end could still be hard, but experiencing the joy and love of God while doing so made it much more fulfilling and epic.

Learn how to live within your means. If you’re struggling to make it from paycheck to paycheck, I think it’s important that you learn how to live with what you have. I’ve seen low-wage workers regularly spend on iPhones, fancy cars, convenience/fast food, expensive tattoos, cigarettes, and illegal drugs. All of these things are unnecessary for a comfortable life (especially illegal drugs, which are COMPLETELY unnecessary and should not be used), and they are a substantial expense when you add it all up. I’m not saying that we should strip our lives of all luxuries, but that we all—no matter how high or low your wage is—mindfully find an appropriate balance.

Eat more homemade meals and less fast-food. Even eating off of a “dollar menu” is more expensive than making simple meals yourself. Sure, people may not feel like they have the time to cook homemade meals when they have to work a lot. But, if you pre-plan and look at your schedule, I think you’ll find that you can make the time. If, one day a week you take a few hours and make simple meals to toss in the freezer, you are taking steps to save money, have healthier, better-quality meals, and (hopefully) will bring your family closer together through the meal planning/cooking/eating process.

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