• I am Patient Zero in our New Economy: Raise the Minimum Wage

    March 9, 2013

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas

    This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post

    In his State of the Union Address, the president said that the federal minimum wage should be raised to nine dollars an hour. He said also that a person holding down a full-time job should not have to live in poverty in a country like America. I could not agree more; for the last few months I’ve lived like the people the president referred to and it is not a pretty picture.

    As research for my new book, I have been working in the minimum wage economy and trying to live on the money I make. The situation is much, much worse than the president described in his Address, a tragedy for our society. Here’s what it looks like.

    Once Upon A Time

    The last time I worked for minimum wage was in a small store in my Ohio hometown, almost a right of passage in high school, pulling in about four bucks an hour stocking shelves alongside my friends. Our girlfriends ran the registers, our moms and dads shopped in the store and a good story about a date could get you a night off from the sympathetic manager. When someone graduated, the manager would hire one of the workers’ friends and the cycle continued.

    The New World

    At age 53 I expected to be quizzed about why I was looking for minimum wage work in a big box retail store. No one cared; instead, the application process included a background and credit check, along with a drug test. Any of those anonymous agencies could have vetoed my employment and I’d never even know about it. Most places that don’t pay much seem really concerned that their workers are drug-free. I’m not sure why this is, because you can be a banker or lawyer and get through the day higher than angels on a cloud. Regardless, I did what I had to in front of another person, handing him the cup. He gave me one of those universal signs of the underemployed I now recognize, a “we’re all in it, what’re ya gonna do” look, just a little upward flick of his eyes.

    After hiring I watched a video on theft. The interesting thing was that in addition to warning us about stealing candy for breaks, we were not to steal time. The store paid us for our time and so even if we snuck out for a breath of air or flipped through a magazine, we were stealing time. Would we have liked someone from the store to come to our home (or, I guess, day-rate motel room, car back seat, shelter bunk or cardboard box under a bridge) and have them do whatever the heck the store would want from us there?

    New break policy: zero to five and a half hour shift, no break. New schedule policy: all shifts reduced to five and a half hours or less. Somebody said it was illegal not to give us breaks, but what can you do, call the cops like it was a real crime? It turns out in fact that in my state employers are not required to grant breaks to anyone over age 16; in some places minimum wage workers do eight and nine hours shifts without a meal or a chance to get off their feet for a few minutes. No one gets sick leave, holidays or accrues vacation time. No health benefits.

    Eight hours on your feet is tough, but what about sixteen? At age 53 I was the third oldest minimum wage worker at the store. With one or two exceptions, everyone on the schedule worked multiple jobs, often in adjacent stores in the same strip mall. They have to: even if the store gave us 40 hours a week for a year (a big, big if, as most places cap workers at 39 hours to avoid them becoming “full time” and possibly qualifying for benefits. In my case, as work expands and contracts, I’ve been scheduled for as few as seven hours a week at one store, without notice that my hours were going to be cut), your annual income would be only about $15k, before taxes of course. The stores adapted, actually trying pretty hard to create schedules that allowed everyone to hold down their two or three jobs. It was the norm, a fact of life, something for business to adjust to.

    Who We Are

    Who are the workers? They are adults, many single moms (64% of minimum wage employees are women), a veteran from Iraq (“the Army taught me to drive a Humvee which turns out not to be a marketable skill”), another retired guy, a couple of students who alternate semesters at work with semesters at the local community college and a small handful of recent immigrants. One guy said that because the big boxer drove his small store out of business he had to take a minimum wage job, which only pays him enough so that he sort of has to buy at the big box store. They made him a greeter at the front door and told him to be enthusiastic. He was. That guy was like Patient Zero in our New Economy.

    There is no ladder up, no promotion path. Most of us were just trying to make a little money. But some people had been yelled at too many times, or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were broke. People—and dogs—don’t get like that quickly; it has to build up on them, or tear down on them, like erosion, one thing after another nudging them deeper into it. Then one day, if the supervisor told them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’d do it, more afraid of contradicting the boss than making an obvious mistake. You’d see them rushing in early to stand next to the timeclock so they would not be late. One broke down in tears when she accidentally dropped something, afraid she’d get fired on the spot for it. They walk around like the floor was all stray cat tails. It is a lousy way to live as an adult, your only incentive for doing good work being they’d let you keep a job that made you hate yourself for another day.

    You had to pay attention, but not too much. It was an acquired skill. Enough time in this retail minimum economy and it was trained into you for life, but for newcomers like me it was a slow process of getting pushed back into the ground every time we had a accidental growth spurt. None of us was trying to be great, just satisfied. This was just grey bread as you felt yourself getting more and more tired each day.

    About 30 million Americans work this way, live this way, at McJobs. We pop up like Brigadoon during election cycles, often as caricatures like Joe the Plumber, or as props for an important speech. In between such appearances, about half of all single-parent families live in poverty. These situations are not unique. Wal-Mart has more than two million employees; if Wal-Mart was an army, it would be the largest military on the planet behind China. Wal-Mart is the largest overall employer in the U.S., and the biggest employer in twenty-five states.

    More than Minimum

    I did work in retail for minimum wage, both at age 16 and again at age 53. While I lived a life from teenager stocking shelves to older adult stocking shelves, the minimum wage only rose by a few bucks. The minimum wage today is $7.25—is a big latte really what an hour of my labor is worth? While the money has not changed, what has changed is who is now working these minimum wage jobs. Once upon a time they were filled with high school kids earning pocket money. In 2013, the jobs are encumbered by adults struggling to get by. Something is wrong.

    So to the president I say, yes, please, do raise the minimum wage. But how far is the proposed nine bucks an hour going to go? Are we going to do eight hours of labor for the cell phone bill? Another twelve for the groceries each week? Another twenty or thirty for a car payment? How many hours are we going to work? How many can we work? Nobody can make a real living doing these jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage. And you can’t build a nation on the working poor. Maybe what we need is to spend more on education and less on war, even out the tax laws and rules just a bit, require a standard living wage instead of a minimum one. That’s not all the answer, but it is a start. The president is right that it is time for a change, but what is needed is much more than a nudge up on the minimum wage.

    Working for minimum wage, I came to know that these were real problems, with real people behind them, lives. We have to decide if all this is just about money or if it is about more, about society, about how we live, about people, about America.



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  • Recent Comments

    • marko said...

      1

      So, what’s the proposal – 20$ per hour? 40$? Who is going to pay that?

      Have you ever tried to run a business? If not, why not? You should open a store and pay people more. See how long you can last.

      03/9/13 12:39 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      2

      “if the supervisor told them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’d do it, more afraid of contradicting the boss than making an obvious mistake.”

      PVB,

      This is a common experience at the Central Intelligence Agency aka the False Advertising Agency, which is run by “Madmen.”

      03/9/13 2:12 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...

      3

      I recognise the above photo as a still from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, 1936. Here’s the scene where his work drives him insane:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wENE7O-Y6ME

      03/9/13 2:26 PM | Comment Link

    • BradR said...

      4

      Life ain’t easy in a RW paradice.

      03/9/13 5:21 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      5

      Harpo Marx may have picked up on the lecher humor of Chaplin- it sure seems so from the clip MLCLT shared.

      03/9/13 5:57 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      6

      MeLoveConsullongtime: I’m still not sure how to interpret your moniker knowing it may have been borrowed from FULL METAL JACKET. Maybe I don’t want to be filled in.-oops that didn’t sound right. Forget my inquiry.

      03/9/13 10:38 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...

      7

      Marko has a point – let’s bring back slavery or it’s sister, indentured servitude. (except this time – we dont have to provide for housing or food for slaves, that was a welfare program the way it was run up until 1864, and we can’t have welfare). It’s amazing people complain the prices of the economy rise as do costs for petty things like housing, food, and education.

      Why should Americans expect wages to rise too? Heck we can keep bringing in illegal aliens and exploiting them, it works so well yes? We dont need to hire Americans in our own country. They will just complain about stupid stuff like when banks commit fraudulent practices such as forging signatures on mortgage applications without telling homeowners and this results in people losing their homes without their having a clue or having recourse, like in FLorida for example. Or they’ll complain about practices for example by companies such as the CVS drugstores in Washington, DC which have eliminated labour bringing in the self-serve machines yet interestingly — have increased prices for products have increased there – not that i am complaining. One would think if you eliminate labour costs it saves the consumer money, right? Prices should go down, yes? But no, prices keep rising. It’s good, comrades!! Keep raising the cost for drugs and such items. Someone has to profit. We dont need jobs in this country, we should be considerate for those foreign countries where slave labour is presently permitted and people work without being paid and a minimum wage is irrelevant. Yes Marko there are places in this world already living the ideals and soon we should be there too

      Such complainers yes?? The system works well -okay it doesnt work for me but it’s working for someone, right???

      03/10/13 12:08 AM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...

      8

      If i may further add, Afghanistan and Iraq are just the economic models we should look to!! With such “contracted” economic systems, much wealth gets concentrated in the hands of a few and there is no need to worry about minimum wage. Pffft. Labour can be free — people — if they are lucky to have jobs often thanks to ‘connections’ — can work and work without ever receiving wages. What do you think about bringing these economic models home??

      03/10/13 12:16 AM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...

      9

      “MeLoveConsullongtime: I’m still not sure how to interpret your moniker knowing it may have been borrowed from FULL METAL JACKET”

      Of course it’s an allusion to that movie’s scene of the Vietnamese prostitute chanting “me love you long time”, but the more specific reference is to how several US Consular staff have in recent years colluded with a Russian honeypot (sorry, I should say “Russian woman with hot legs”) to commit international child kidnapping of an American citizen’s child and several related felonies, as a personal favor to their Russian, um, friend. What’s most shocking is that these felonies are clearly documented in the child’s US Passport file, all the more reason why they’re strenuously being covered up.

      03/10/13 4:13 AM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...

      10

      “Get a Job! Get a Job!”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwI2DTiVSJ0

      03/10/13 8:37 AM | Comment Link

    • Jane said...

      11

      Peter, I ask this in all seriousness: Why did *you* feel the need to personally undertake an experiment in poverty wages when there are so many people actually living that life — who have lived that life for years?

      I’m reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel & Dimed. Ehrenreich, a PhD, embarked on a similar mission of playing poor in order to write a book (which became immensely popular).

      It’s not as if the poor don’t or can’t tell their own stories. The Internet is full of true life tales of poverty and struggle. Blogs and self-publishing have swung open doors previously closed to lower-class voices. Yet, it still seems as if there are barriers to these voices being hard . . . and that their stories are still “best told,” and stand the best chance of being heard, when filtered through writers in the upper classes, engaging in some sort of social research.

      I wonder why that is. Do you know?

      03/10/13 1:40 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...

      12

      I am writing now a book that traces the decline of the American Middle Class over the last 40 years, and the concurrent rise of the Working Poor as their replacement in society. The book is a work of (semi-) fiction to allow me the flexibility to tell the story in an engaging way, but it is important that the characters speak honestly about their experiences. While I have read and continue to read deeply peoples’ stories in blogs and such as you cite, there is no way to replace understanding things on a real and personal basis. I’m not the first writer to have done that and while I make no comparisons in terms of my skill and those of great authors, some of the most compelling stories of working life have been told by men like Dickens and Steinbeck who themselves were certainly not poor. I believe that what matters is the truth of the writing itself; after all, you wouldn’t restrict your choice of surgeons only to those who have had cancer themselves?

      Nickled and Dimed is a good book that brought to light a world many people just want to see through in their daily lives. Unlike that book, a documentary, I am attempting to tell a larger story about societal change, and need to illustrate life in the New Economy as a part of that story. I wanted to tell the story fairly and living it in part helps me do that.

      03/10/13 2:38 PM | Comment Link

    • Mary said...

      13

      If Peter is to write a book about the downfall of the middle class in the U.S., he needs to be in the mix.

      I think it’s great. Thanks, Peter.

      03/10/13 3:16 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      14

      PVB,

      “Jane” makes an assumption about your status – “writers in the upper classes engaging in some sort of social research.” Once the USG defaults on its debts, including your pension, you will be writing from first hand-to-mouth existence. Of course, then only the lucky few will be able to afford your book.

      03/10/13 3:20 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      15

      03/10/13 3:24 PM | Comment Link

    • jo6pac said...

      16

      Peter if you think its bad now just wait until 0 grand bargin starts because by the end of 2013 this will be a 3rd or 4th world nation. The 1% will have it all and 99% Main Street around the world will be slowly crushed. This song covers what you are writing about.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVXYzcb3r-w

      03/10/13 6:56 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      17

      Jo6pac- Springsteen is often looking for external villains or hostile forces to explain the mournful destinies of the underclass. David Ackles on the other hand with a song like MONTANA – a rueful song about a man trying to understand his roots-is looking inward to see if he alone is the source of his own unhappiness.

      03/11/13 12:34 AM | Comment Link

    • Allison Williams said...

      18

      “men like Dickens and Steinbeck who themselves were certainly not poor.”

      I’m glad you reference Nickel and Dimed in your comments, and your larger point about personal experience stands. But you may want to check your facts – Dickens grew up in a workhouse and was sent out as a laborer before his teens. Even when his father got out of debtors’ prison, young Charles was not brought home to the rest of the family. He knew poverty well.

      03/11/13 8:06 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      19

      PVB,

      Write what you know, so write a book about the State cables downloaded by Manning, a “Wikileaks for Dummies.” Would be interested to see how DS reacts.

      http://news.yahoo.com/russia-puts-dead-whistleblower-trial-170223778.html

      03/11/13 12:28 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...

      20

      Alison Williams wrote:

      “Dickens grew up in a workhouse and was sent out as a laborer before his teens. Even when his father got out of debtors’ prison, young Charles was not brought home to the rest of the family. He knew poverty well.”

      So did China’s Chairman Mao, who ultimately came to regard the poor as expendable.

      03/11/13 2:32 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...

      21

      quote: “They are adults, many single moms (64% of minimum wage employees are women.”unquote

      One year ago, my wife’s oldest daughter who is 41, and her teenage son had to move in with us, as she was working three jobs in Lake Tahoe, each with the same parameters as you describe. Three jobs and she got less than 30 hours per week. With rents on the high side because of location, she just couldn’t make it. It took her almost 7 months to find a job here, and now, the big box employer has her down to ..yep..5 hours per week. Starting at 3 in the morning.
      Then her youngest daughter moved from Wisconsin and moved in with us. She couldn’t find work there, and still hasn’t found a job here either.
      Then, her granddaughter and husband moved in too. They both lost their jobs in the Calif bay area. Still haven’t found work here either after 3 months.
      I live in the largest town along the coast of Oregon. On an average day, there will be a homeless person begging for help, on all four corners of 6 major highway intersections through town. At times, it looks like the Grapes of Wrath.
      Pickups, vans, and vehicles with trailers, all loaded with personal effects and people out of gas. Most are young people with families. It makes me sick. But being retired and on a fixed income, with 5 additional people in the house, there isn’t any expendable cash to hand these people. I feel bad for them. Once you are on the street, it’s almost impossible to get a job. Even if you could find one.
      Personally, I think we’ve been sold down the river of Corporate globalism. Having grown up during the middle class boon of 50’s and 60’s, it’s sad to see the state of affairs this nation is in. Now that most manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to other countries, we will NEVER regain the middle class standing we once had. Never.
      Frankly, we can no longer make it either. My wife’s son has offered us a permanent rent free home in Michigan, and I made my last house payment last month. After 10 yrs and a $25k downpayment, I will be walking away from it as homes here average a year or two before they sell. Fuck BofA. Tried three times to get through the bureaucratic crap of Obominations “homeowners relief” program. What a joke. So much for ‘merican exceptionalism. Give it 5 more years and america will look like a 3rd world nation on steroids. Now I understand why DHS just purchased 1.7 billion rounds of ammo and 7000 machine guns, cause they know what’s coming. With as many guns as there are in America, all hell will break loose at some point. And it ain’t gonna be pretty.

      03/11/13 4:13 PM | Comment Link

    • HSTroll said...

      22

      What’s really sad is the number of working dead at the Department getting paid to wait, and wait, for someone to discipline them for this or that offense based on what he, she, they said, saw, thought, dreamed. Nothing like getting FS 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 or above pay to do nothing but space out and wonder when the other shoe will drop; if it ever does. Perhaps when it does drop, the employee is told there was “never” anything there; or look over there while we punish you for this offense we pulled out of page 84 of the 343 page report of insinuations – sorry it took 47 months to get to this point but we’re all friends right? Meanwhile, a fellow citizen works 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet, and fails. Can you see why people are not pleased with the government? There are people in the Department who want to get back to work and enjoy the decency of making a day’s wage for a day’s work, but there is such a twisted sense of reality at play it would make Kafka laugh. My poor government. My poorer nation.

      03/11/13 9:25 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...

      23

      Thank you Peter and HS Troll too.

      Anyone who’s lost their job, and i’d imagine Peter would have insight into this and perhaps like myself is too proud to admit certain things and so go a back door way of addressing something like researching a book or going back to school — would indeed be qualified to know what economic hardship is and worrying how you will pay your bills for your housing, your family (if you’re married), afford that doctor visit when you need and all that stuff called responsibility in our culture. I am mystified at the comments here by people who think the author is in no standing to research a topic on financial hardship. He is, he lost his job. What’s your standing for your comments, then i have to wonder.

      Thank you too HS Troll: Among the points you make — No government agency should be allowed to dry up employees’ work and hold them accountable in their very own performance evaluation, as i experienced, for asking for more work (yeah, i was faulted for this in writing) — then have the gaul to tout to Congress what they are doing to improve efficiency in the government — or the dead wood that gets raise on top of raise for looking good in a suit and gets to keep their job and get the raise because they have a connection.

      03/13/13 12:19 PM | Comment Link

    • jummy said...

      24

      We need fascism.

      No. I don’t mean racialist nationalism or to define ourselves against hereditary enemy groups who we seek to eradicate.

      We need to replace our current ethos of Ayn Randian bizzarro marxism with an economic nationalism which forces industry and consumers to support a middleclass wage for the majority of workers.

      75% import tarrifs? sounds good to me. If our trading “partners” don’t like it they can defend their own borders. The math is simple, however: you have to make the domestic product cheaper and easier to obtain than the foreign product. Guilt-baiting with “Buy American” bumper stickers will never be as effective as price in moving consumer impulses.

      06/22/13 1:01 PM | Comment Link

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