The endless fight for a living wage: is $15/hour really too much?

By Caitlin Kelly

The federal U.S. minimum wage remains $7.25. Five states have no set legal minimum at all; six pay more than $8.00/hour.

(The minimum wage in Australia is already $15.00.)

In an era of almost $4/gallon gasoline and rising costs for food, health care and other necessities, the fight to win a living wage continues.

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington
Official seal of SeaTac, Washington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city of SeaTac, in Washington State, is fighting this battle today.

From bbc.co.uk:

Supporters of Proposition 1 say $15 an hour is a “living wage”.

Detractors say that it would see businesses close and lay off some of
the 6,300 workers who would be impacted by the raise.

SeaTac covers just 10 sq miles (26 sq km) and has a population of just 30,000, with only 12,000 registered voters.

But what everyone agrees on is that tiny SeaTac has suddenly become a battleground for one of the biggest issues confronting the US economy – income inequality, or the widening gap between the rich andpoor, which has risen to its highest level since 1917.

“Coming out of the recession, we’ve seen job growth come out of the low-wage service sector,” says Prof Ken Jacobs, head of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

The battle is pitched — desperate workers struggling to make ends meet against employers who insist they cannot possibly pay more.

Or that workers simply offer little to no skills, certainly none they value at that price.

The state of New Jersey — with 50,000 workers employed at minimum wage — will raise its lowest legal wage January 1 to $8.25/hour.

Like every argument, this one contains a blend of truth and perception, of assumption and received wisdom.

One of the issues is really thinking harder about what constitutes a “skill.”

Here are my thoughts, quoted recently in U.S. News and World Report, about what it’s like to work retail.

I worked a low-wage job from September 2007 to December 18, 2009 when the economy fell off a cliff and I desperately needed additional income. I sold costly outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, in an upscale suburban mall in New York, a 10-minute drive from my home. I earned $11/hour with no commission, few bonuses and a 30-cent raise in that time.

I typically sold $150+ worth of merchandise every hour; my best day ever, I sold more than $500 worth per hour.

And the company’s “reward” for selling $25,000 worth of its merchandise, virtually all of it sourced from low-wage factories in Peru, China and elsewhere? A gift card for the same merchandise worth $25.

You can exhort your workers and plaster mission statements to your walls, issue edicts, wave your hands…It’s tough for any worker to get excited — or “engaged” as the workplace gurus like to call it — when you’re toiling for pennies and earning significant profits for the person who relies on your labor.

Let alone a major multi-national corporation whose top executives now stagger home bent double with the bags of cash they’re netting — now typically 354 times the wage of their average worker.

When you can’t even pay your bills, no matter how hard you work, work loses much of its meaning.

And all of its dignity.

In January 2009, our store manager cut all our hours. I was only working one seven-hour shift, then cut to five hours, one of which paid for the cost of parking at the mall. We were told “the company can’t afford more.”

That month The Wall Street Journal reported that the parent company of The North Face was sitting on millions in cash — money it used in 2011 to purchase a competitor, Timberland for $2 billion.

The assumption being that no one working a low-wage job would notice this odd and striking definition of “can’t afford.”

I did, and wrote about this in my book about my time there, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published in China in July 2013.

malled cover HIGH

I do realize what happens when you pay workers poorly — they quit! I’ve been hiring part-time assistants for more than 15 years, when I paid a college undergrad $12/hour for her skills. Jess was amazing: smart, funny, a quick learner and a ferocious work ethic.

That was a lot of money then, and for some workers, it still is. I’d have simply felt embarrassed offering her less; I recently heard from an undergrad at a prestigious American university that a professor offered them $7.25/hour, which I find appalling and abusive.

When I pay $10/hour I can find smart and talented people  — but only for a few weeks, a month or so at most. They leave quickly, as they must, to make more elsewhere. At $15/hour I was able to keep the skills of someone else this year for more than eight months.

Hoping to replace her, (as she now seeks a full-time job), I recently interviewed someone who came highly recommended…and who wants $25/hour.

That’s my breaking point. So, for now, I am mostly assistant-less, and feeling that loss in my reduced productivity.

The pricing of our labor is a delicate dance. But tight-fisted employers who insist that low-wage workers have “no skills” are lying to themselves and to their weary workers.

They’re also short-changing their customers, who need, expect and deserve good service for their hard-earned dollars.

Here are some of the skills we used in our retail work:

— Maintaining a sense of humor (let alone having one to start with!)

— Listening carefully and for long periods of time to customers to discern their needs

— Speaking to customers in whatever style/tone/speed (even foreign language) best suited them

— Learning and memorizing a wide array of product knowledge: size/price/technical specs

— Lifting, carrying, stacking, folding and hanging goods

— Cleaning and tidying the entire store, top to bottom

— Ringing up purchases

— Watching the sales floor to deter shoplifting

No skill?

Snort.

Try calming a shrieking one-per-center threatening to “call corporate” if you fail to meet her demands.

Try helping a mentally disabled teen sort through all his jacket options to find something he loves that fits

Try explaining to a Saudi prince’s servant which down jacket will keep the princeling warm in his first New York winter.

walmart beijing
walmart beijing (Photo credit: galaygobi)

When Walmart employees suck up taxpayers’ money in food stamps ad Medicaid because their cannot earn a living wage...we’ve got a problem.

A 2004 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations found that, in California, the average Walmart employee required over $500 more in total public assistance than workers from comparable large retailers. Families of Walmart workers required 40% more health care assistance and 38% more in other kinds of public assistance (like food stamps, subsidized housing, and school lunches) than comparable families of large retail workers.

In addition, a 2006 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Walmart had the highest percentage of employees enrolled in Medicaid in the state; one in every six of Walmart’s 48,000 Pennsylvania employees was enrolled. Finally, in January of 2012, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Walmart employees and families were the top recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance in the state.

The American worker is being subjected to a fierce game of chicken — who will blink first? Who will cave most quickly to imperial corporate demands, like these, made to the mayor of a small, economically-strapped town in Idaho:

Another economic rescue with Hoku’s glamour and promise is not on the horizon. Mr. Blad, in an interview in his office, said a big employer had recently expressed interest in coming here, bringing perhaps 1,000 jobs. But the company, which he declined to name — a warehouse distributor that does most of its sales over the Internet — has said it would offer $10 an hour, only a few dollars above the minimum wage.

The company even had the audacity to ask for financial incentives, which the city has politely declined. “We would welcome them, and we would value them,” Mr. Blad said. “But I can’t justify taxpayer dollars for a $10-an-hour job.”

What say you?

Are you working for (or paying) minimum or low wages?

If you’re earning so little, do you have an exit strategy?