Food Workers Tell Us Their Surprising Thoughts About Minimum Wage

“It didn’t make a big difference in the way that I do business at all.”

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt enacted a series of economic policies that helped lift up the lower classes, and established the progressive mindset of protecting laborers against capitalists. Minimum wage traces back to the latter part of the New Deal in a statute called the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, also commonly called the Wages and Hours Bill.

Nearly 80 years later, minimum wage remains a hot-button issue. The fact is, the minimum wage has not kept pace with economic inflation since 1938—if that were the case, minimum wage would be at a shade under $20 an hour in 2017. But even an increase in minimum wage to just $10.10 (which was President Obama’s proposal) could bring millions of people out from below the poverty line. There is a growing movement called Fight for $15 that calls for fast food worker’s wages to be $15 an hour.

Programs like Medicaid and SNAP do help poor people, but only to an extent. A study done by researchers at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California, Berkeley, found that employers in the fast food industry factor in government programs when considering how much they should pay their workers, which may be driving wages downward. And wages—as opposed to government programs—are always negotiable if a worker proves their worth. This creates an incentive for people to take minimum wage jobs.

The conservative argument against a $15 minimum wage is that it will lead to job loss—that small businesses will not be able to withstand an increase in wages and that it will hasten the path toward automation. It is true that there’s no way to tell how minimum wage increases will affect businesses, or whether jobs will indeed be lost to a higher bottom line or even robots, since minimum wages haven’t ever been increased by more than 70 cents at a time.

However, economists roundly agree that this would not be the case. In fact, after Wal-Mart increased its wages in 2015, they said they were able to source more productive workers and achieve higher sales figures. Right now, the Federal Department of Labor has a “mythbuster” section on their website flouting the arguments against a minimum wage increase.

As it stands, the current federal minimum wage in 2017 remains at $7.25. Someone working 40 hours a week would earn only $290 a week ($15,080 a year). President Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, CEO of a company that franchises Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurants, opposes Obama’s recommendation of $10.10 an hour, but has said that he doesn’t oppose an increase as long as it is “rational.” (What is not known is what “rational” is—though bringing people out of poverty seems pretty rational to us.)

In 2017, 19 states increased their minimum wage, some by 5 cents, and some dramatically—Arizona’s minimum wage increased by nearly $2.00, from $8.05 an hour to $10.00 an hour.

I reached out to Michelle Slayton of Amt Associates, owner/operator of several McDonald’s in Arizona, and a representative said that they would pass on making a comment, but we spoke to a swath of people working in the food supply chain to gauge how minimum wage increases in their state would affect them.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Of course, with Trump becoming president, we talk about it a lot[/quote]

Caleb Kinsella, 18, University of Florida business administration student and counter worker at Larry’s Giant Subs

Location: Gainesville, Florida
Increase in Florida: $8.05 to $8.10

To be honest, I haven’t noticed the difference. Five cents isn’t a huge difference. It’s not like making the jump to $10 or $15 an hour, which I’m against, because that would create a lot of job loss. It’s enough to get by. I should be clear; the money I get from scholarships and grants pays my tuition and housing. I work 15 to 20 hours a week, which comes out to about $120 to $150 a week, and that’s just my spending money.

I’m not sure I’d like to see a minimum wage increase. I’m against them, because I like the fact that I can get a job. My job isn’t that hard. I go in and make sandwiches, and I make tips. In a four-hour shift, I get about $10 in tips.

I think it’s interesting to watch the minimum wage increases, and people making $15 an hour. I would love to have that, but in my mind, I’m thinking that’s a lot of money, and how are companies going to handle that? It’s great if you can get a job, but if it’s going to create problems getting jobs, then I’m against it.

But I get that it’s different if you’re asking someone who is relying on minimum wage to live off. Then, I think it’s necessary. But if you’re asking a student like me, I’m not sure I’m worth $15 an hour. There are some people I work with at the shop who rely on the job—they recently had to let someone go, and the person had to come back and beg for their job back.

I’m thinking a lot about this stuff, because I’m a business administration major. I took a macroeconomics course last semester, and I’m taking a microeconomics course this semester. And, of course, with Trump becoming president, we talk about it a lot.

I should note that I don’t rely on any money from my family—my dad or my grandparents—for assistance. I live off my scholarships and grants. I take a lot of pride in that. A lot of people my age in my college, and around the country, are in debt. I’m thankful that I’m not one of them.

Oh, by the way, it’s funny, because I called my work to ask them exactly how much I made for this interview. I’ve been working there a few months now. They really like me there. And I was making $8.10, the minimum wage, and my boss just asked me if I’d like a raise. She bumped me up to $8.75 an hour. So, thanks for that.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Government is causing more problems than they are solving[/quote]

Young Kwun, owner, Tabitha Max Blueberry Farm, LLC

Location: Porterville, California
Increase in California: $10 to $10.50

Eight dollars per hour was too low. A lot of desperate, stressed people. (It was a) good move to raise it. Ten dollars per hour minimum is much better, and tolerable. Fifteen dollars per hour, full-time workers will make too much and not qualify for food stamps and other benefits (they will have to pay) higher taxes, et cetera. Regulation is choking us—labor regulations, et cetera.

(There are) some good rules, but many good intentions gone very wrong. Workman’s comp, labor board, and unemployment are gamed by savvy undocumented workers. (They get) $60,000 for a sprained ankle. What a terrible system. (There are) lots of disgusted people, including the undocumented workers who choose to work and not game the system. Lots of workers double-dip work and unemployment benefits by using multiple Social Security numbers. More rules have made it even more of a mess.

The best thing to do is just give each worker a personal account and reduce benefits and taxes. Allowing up to the first 90 days each year for workers to work as independent contractors is good for everyone except the government.

California’s move to high wages will push automation to high levels. Child labor laws hurt everyone, including the kids. I know you may not want to hear this, but, (saying this) as a former Democrat, government is causing more problems than they are solving.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It didn’t make a big difference in the way that I do business at all[/quote]

David Nyhan, General Manager, Rí Rá Irish Pub

Location: Burlington, Vermont
Increase in Vermont: $9.60 to $10.00

It didn’t make a big difference in the way that I do business at all. We didn’t increase our prices in any way. We knew it was coming, and the majority, if not all, of my staff were at, if not above, minimum wage when it came into effect. It definitely changes how you look at other spends. It may definitely change how I would purchase something else maybe. Staffing levels didn’t change, but it’s one of those that you have to monitor.

Vermont doesn’t seem to have an issue with jobs. It’s a market where back of house is a tough for finding people that want to be in the kitchen. Even with minimum wage at the level it is, you have to be competitive with other restaurants, and you have to pay more to get staff in the door. It’s more supply and demand that sets the hiring process.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The new law hasn't affected us[/quote]

Representative at a meat processing plant in Washington state (name of company withheld at the request of the representative)

Location: Washington state
Increase in Washington state: $9.47 to $11.00

Our employees are paid above the minimum wage so the new law hasn't affected us.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I think the minimum wage is way too low for cost of life, especially for a job that is undesirable, that is exploited[/quote]

Name withheld, dishwasher

Location: Los Angeles, California
Increase in California: $10 to $10.50

I don’t make minimum wage. I got a raise of 50 cents to $11 an hour after minimum wage went up. So it’s hard for me to talk about minimum wage, because the place I’m working at now treats their employees pretty well. It’s nice to be paid $11 an hour for washing dishes, plus I get tips that aren’t getting taken out of my check.

It is what it is. It’s a dishwashing job. With the dishwasher job, it doesn’t make my quality of work that much better if I get 50 cents more an hour, because I don’t give a fuck. It’s the most menial job, and 50 cents isn’t that much.

I would love to make $15 an hour, though. I think the minimum wage is way too low for cost of life, especially for a job that is undesirable, that is exploited. That shit is unacceptable, and it’s the norm. But then again, if undesirability affects how much you get paid per hour, then if you were paid more, than wouldn’t the desirability go up for that job?

If you want to talk about overtime, almost every restaurant that I’ve worked at doesn’t pay overtime. The last place I was working at, if you wanted to work overtime, you could talk to the owner. Anything after regular time, they would give you regular wage in cash in an envelope.

I think the dishwashers there got paid $10 an hour, which was minimum wage then, and almost all of them worked 60 to 70 hours a week. The employer is essentially exploiting labor to the max, and those dishwashers would not get tips. I started out as a dishwasher there and then moved to a busser.

Now I’m lucky; I get a higher tip percentage than the rest of the staff.

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