“$15 for flipping burgers?!”

That’s the remark I hear most often in opposition to raising the minimum wage:  “Fifteen dollars for flipping burgers?!”

Let’s admit two “givens”:

Given that first, it’s a rare employer who pays more voluntarily.

Given that second, the minimum wage has never been about the level of skill of a worker.

Given those two points, the minimum wage isn’t about flipping burgers.  It’s about what people need to live with their head above water.

When government was in the pocket of businesses, an employer like Andrew Carnegie could pay steelworkers 12 cents an hour for a 12-hour work day.

It wasn’t employers who voluntarily raised wages so that workers could live.

It wasn’t employers who voluntarily shortened the work day from 12 hours to 10 and then to 8.

It wasn’t until the 1930s when FDR came into office that workers had protection to organize. Only then could voices be heard that wages were too low and hours too long.

Today, one of the biggest industries is fast-food.  They’re literally “bigger than US Steel.”  These workers, however, aren’t organized.  They are at the mercy of the employer for setting wages and hours, so long as the standards don’t go below federal law.

Nobody works at McDonald’s flipping burgers and frying fries because it’s an ideal job.  It’s what’s available.  It doesn’t take much skill.  It’s what’s available.  It wasn’t that long ago, in the 1980s, that unemployed steelworkers in the Pittsburgh area found themselves on the other side of the counter at McDonald’s.  It’s the only work that was available.

If someone works at a fast-food place or Wal-Mart, their expenses are the same as for people with well-paying jobs: housing, food, gasoline, utilities…The burden of paying for housing isn’t about renting a low-income place vs. buying a nice house with a lawn.  Paying for a housing is a load depending on what percentage of your income it takes.  A typical standard is that housing should not take up more than 25 percent of your predictable, regular income.  Of the income that I know I will get each month, my housing takes up 35 percent of it.  That is a big bite!

The concept behind the minimum wage is that people need at least a foundation to stand upon to keep their head above water.  It isn’t about what they’re doing (carrying garbage, cleaning sewers, mowing lawns…)  People need to be able to live.  It isn’t about pooh-poohing the work that people do as not worthy of what they’re being paid.  It’s about all of us having an awareness of how someone survives living hand-to-mouth and keeping up with bills.  it’s about compassion.

I have been unemployed for two years now.  I only get income from Social Security for disability (ever since I was unable to work after major surgery for cancer) and a part of my pension (I had to take early retirement as a Presbyterian minister in order to get more money so that I could keep up with bills).  I am still looking for a church.  But my medical history is scaring them away.  So in the meantime my only earned income is umpiring baseball and softball and — in the fall — soccer and field hockey.

People would scoff, If you can run up and down a field officiating, you are healthy enough to work.  Why are you getting disability, you bum?  I’m getting disability because I can’t find work because of the cancer, and the government has been compassionate enough to continue giving me a small income until I get a break.

This means I have barely enough to survive on — for food, gasoline utilities…But if anything comes — the hundreds I have to pay for drugs before my insurance kicks in, needing an oil change for the car, registration fee, car insurance…it throws my budget out of whack and I find myself having to put aside bills until I can pay.  This week I got a shut-off notice from the gas company.  Only with a timely check from my mother (who is retired) was I able to avoid the shut-off.

John Steinbeck (“Grapes of Wrath”), a Nobel Prize winner for literature, wrote, “When you are in trouble, go to the poor.  Only the poor will help.”

What he meant was, only the poor know what you’re going through.  They’re going through it themselves.

I don’t flip burgers or fry fries.  But I know what people are going through who are trying to survive on a trickle of income.

Employers don’t voluntarily pay more.  It takes law.  It’s a law that counters the nature of human nature to NOT give (else nobody would pay taxes), nor to give more than one has to (else wages would be lower than minimum wage).

This isn’t about skill level.  This is about knowing what people go through — what they need for bare survival.  It’s about compassion.

 

 

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