Minimum wage debate deserves rational thinking


I can’t help but notice that people for and against a proposed minimum wage increase use the same word to defend their position: Deserve.

“Employees deserve to be paid a living wage,” proponents say.

As the other side sees it: “People in no-skill jobs don’t deserve to be paid $12.50 an hour.”

Sad to say, but wages aren’t based on what a person deserves; there is little rhyme or reason to what a job is paid. I wish it weren’t so.

The people who do the hard labor that provides our food, who take care of us when we are sick, who care for and teach our children, who fight our wars and who keep all forms of waste from accumulating in our streets are not paid what they deserve. The people who make everyday life livable are in low-wage jobs living paycheck to paycheck.

The folks who think up advertising slogans, the athletes and entertainers, the wheelers and dealers of Wall Street and the lobbyists and politicians who put their own careers ahead of the good of the country are paid way more than they deserve. (Not all, but certainly many.)

The debate over the minimum wage is superficial and off target. The one-size-fits-all minimum wage doesn’t work. A few cities and counties have enacted their own minimum wage laws based on the cost to live their community. Contrary to the dire predictions that the increases in labor cost would kill small businesses, it hasn’t happened.

Santa Fe, N.M., established a citywide minimum wage 10 years ago; currently it is $10.51. University of New Mexico researchers have monitored the effect on the industries that employ minimum wage workers and report that there has been steady employment and strong growth in the hotel and restaurant industries.

San Francisco restaurateurs fought the 2007 citywide minimum wage, but in the six years since it was enacted there has been steady employment and growth in the restaurant industry. San Francisco’s minimum wage of $10.55 an hour is good evidence that New York City restaurants and businesses would survive if their current $7.25 minimum wage was increased.

In most states (Washington is an exception), tipped restaurant staff have a minimum wage between $2.13 and $4 per hour, and the employees can only hope their manager does an honest accounting and distribution of the pooled tips. But the number of lawsuits and Department of Labor investigations that result in charges of wage theft tell us that tipped employees aren’t paid what they earn, let alone paid what they deserve.

Inserting the idea of who deserves what into this debate opens up all kinds of issues. Do low-wage, part-time hourly workers deserve a predictable work schedule to facilitate a second job or part-time college classes? Do the thousands of employees who have been replaced by automation and robots in the manufacturing sector deserve to struggle in low-wage jobs as their former employers make record profits?

Do large profit-generating corporations deserve the option of paying low, low wages that are subsidized by state assistance programs (housing, Medicaid, food stamps) and charity programs?

Most people agree that a full-time job should allow an individual to at least pay the basic costs of a no-frills life. But there is a widely held belief that small businesses, retailers and low-price eateries just can’t afford to pay more than a poverty wage and no benefits. There is good evidence to the contrary.

California-based In-N-Out Burger has 238 outlets and pays a starting wage of $10.50 an hour; provides a wide range of benefits, including paid time off; and allows flexible schedules to accommodate school or family activities.

The six Seattle-based Dick’s Drive-In restaurants pay a starting wage of at least $10 per hour, with health and dental insurance provided at no cost to employees working at least 24 hours per week. Employees working 20 hours per week can receive tuition and/or childcare assistance.

There are many other businesses, small and large, that decided their employees deserve to be treated as an asset, an important part of the business.

On Dick’s website you will see this statement: “Dick’s employees are paid more and receive better benefits than employees of any other fast food restaurant in the Seattle area ... Almost one-third of all Dick’s employees have worked for the company for 2 years or more. Although Dick’s commitment to its employees, like Dick’s commitment to quality food, costs more in the short-run, it has been an excellent long-run strategy by giving both customers and employees extra value.”

These examples deserve the headlines.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in Southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Parner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at or phone 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities care is taken to protect identities.


Igor 2 years, 1 month ago

The fact that some companies like Dick’s and In-And-Out Burger pay more than minimum wage is indicative of the fact that they’re seeking employees that work harder, longer and produce more. It has nothing to do with the wish to provide a “living wage.” All minimum wage laws do is make it tougher for young people to find work. The wages that burger joints pay their workers are not intended to provide a “living wage.” These jobs are typically filled by the young looking to get some experience and some cash to help their families get by. Only about 2% of American workers age 25 and over earn minimum wage. Setting wages above a worker’s level of productivity results in higher unemployment and more attendant misery. Those whose employment prospects are reduce most by minimum wage laws are those who are younger, less experienced or less skilled. Minimum wage laws, always political, are always a bad idea.


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