• You Can’t Earn a Living on the Minimum Wage

    February 20, 2016

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Democracy, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

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    When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks about income inequality, and when other candidates speak about the minimum wage and food stamps, what are they really talking about?

    Whether they know it or not, it’s something like this.


    My Working Life Then

    A few years ago, I wrote about my experience enmeshed in the minimum-wage economy, chronicling the collapse of good people who could not earn enough money, often working 60-plus hours a week at multiple jobs, to feed their families. I saw that, in this country, people trying to make ends meet in such a fashion still had to resort to food benefit programs and charity. I saw an employee fired for stealing lunches from the break room refrigerator to feed himself. I watched as a co-worker secretly brought her two kids into the store and left them to wander alone for hours because she couldn’t afford childcare. (As it happens, 29% of low-wage employees are single parents.)

    At that point, having worked at the State Department for 24 years, I had been booted out for being a whistleblower. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me next and so took a series of minimum wage jobs. Finding myself plunged into the low-wage economy was a sobering, even frightening, experience that made me realize just how ignorant I had been about the lives of the people who rang me up at stores or served me food in restaurants. Though millions of adults work for minimum wage, until I did it myself I knew nothing about what that involved, which meant I knew next to nothing about twenty-first-century America.

    I was lucky. I didn’t become one of those millions of people trapped as the “working poor.” I made it out. But with all the election talk about the economy, I decided it was time to go back and take another look at where I had been, and where too many others still are.


    My Working Life Now

    I found things were pretty much the same in 2016 as they were in 2012, which meant — because there was no real improvement — that things were actually worse.

    This time around, I worked for a month and a half at a national retail chain in New York City. While mine was hardly a scientific experiment, I’d be willing to bet an hour of my minimum-wage salary ($9 before taxes) that what follows is pretty typical of the New Economy.

    Just getting hired wasn’t easy for this 56-year-old guy. To become a sales clerk, peddling items that were generally well under $50 a pop, I needed two previous employment references and I had to pass a credit check. Unlike some low-wage jobs, a mandatory drug test wasn’t part of the process, but there was a criminal background check and I was told drug offenses would disqualify me. I was given an exam twice, by two different managers, designed to see how I’d respond to various customer situations. In other words, anyone without some education, good English, a decent work history, and a clean record wouldn’t even qualify for minimum-wage money at this chain.

    And believe me, I earned that money. Any shift under six hours involved only a 15-minute break (which cost the company just $2.25). Trust me, at my age, after hours standing, I needed that break and I wasn’t even the oldest or least fit employee. After six hours, you did get a 45-minute break, but were only paid for 15 minutes of it.


    The hardest part of the job remained dealing with… well, some of you. Customers felt entitled to raise their voices, use profanity, and commit Trumpian acts of rudeness toward my fellow employees and me. Most of our “valued guests” would never act that way in other public situations or with their own coworkers, no less friends. But inside that store, shoppers seemed to interpret “the customer is always right” to mean that they could do any damn thing they wished. It often felt as if we were penned animals who could be poked with a stick for sport, and without penalty. No matter what was said or done, store management tolerated no response from us other than a smile and a “Yes, sir” (or ma’am).

    The store showed no more mercy in its treatment of workers than did the customers. My schedule, for instance, changed constantly. There was simply no way to plan things more than a week in advance. (Forget accepting a party invitation. I’m talking about childcare and medical appointments.) If you were on the closing shift, you stayed until the manager agreed that the store was clean enough for you to go home. You never quite knew when work was going to be over and no cell phone calls were allowed to alert babysitters of any delay.

    And keep in mind that I was lucky. I was holding down only one job in one store. Most of my fellow workers were trying to juggle two or three jobs, each with constantly changing schedules, in order to stitch together something like a half-decent paycheck.

    In New York City, that store was required to give us sick leave only after we’d worked there for a full year — and that was generous compared to practices in many other locales. Until then, you either went to work sick or stayed home unpaid. Unlike New York, most states do not require such a store to offer any sick leave, ever, to employees who work less than 40 hours a week. Think about that the next time your waitress coughs.


    Minimum Wages and Minimum Hours

    Much is said these days about raising the minimum wage (and it should be raised), and indeed, on January 1, 2016, 13 states did raise theirs. But what sounds like good news is unlikely to have much effect on the working poor.

    In New York, for instance, the minimum went from $8.75 an hour to the $9.00 I was making. New York is relatively generous. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 and 21 states require only that federal standard. Presumably to prove some grim point or other, Georgia and Wyoming officially mandate an even lower minimum wage and then unofficially require the payment of $7.25 to avoid Department of Labor penalties. Some Southern states set no basement figure, presumably for similar reasons.

    Don’t forget: any minimum wage figure mentioned is before taxes. Brackets vary, but let’s knock an even 10% off that hourly wage just as a reasonable guess about what is taken out of a minimum-wage worker’s salary. And there are expenses to consider, too. My round-trip bus fare every day, for instance, was $5.50. That meant I worked most of my first hour for bus fare and taxes. Keep in mind that some workers have to pay for childcare as well, which means that it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which someone could actually come close to losing money by going to work for short shifts at minimum wage.

    In addition to the fundamental problem of simply not paying people enough, there’s the additional problem of not giving them enough hours to work. The two unfortunately go together, which means that raising the minimum rate is only part of any solution to improving life in the low-wage world.

    At the store where I worked for minimum wage a few years ago, for instance, hours were capped at 39 a week. The company did that as a way to avoid providing the benefits that would kick in once one became a “full time” employee. Things have changed since 2012 — and not for the better.

    Four years later, the hours of most minimum-wage workers are capped at 29. That’s the threshold after which most companies with 50 or more employees are required to pay into the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) fund on behalf of their workers. Of course, some minimum wage workers get fewer than 29 hours for reasons specific to the businesses they work for.


    It’s Math Time

    While a lot of numbers follow, remember that they all add up to a picture of how people around us are living every day.

    In New York, under the old minimum wage system, $8.75 multiplied by 39 hours equaled $341.25 a week before taxes. Under the new minimum wage, $9.00 times 29 hours equals $261 a week. At a cap of 29 hours, the minimum wage would have to be raised to $11.77 just to get many workers back to the same level of take-home pay that I got in 2012, given the drop in hours due to the Affordable Care Act. Health insurance is important, but so is food.

    In other words, a rise in the minimum wage is only half the battle; employees need enough hours of work to make a living.

    About food: if a minimum wage worker in New York manages to work two jobs (to reach 40 hours a week) without missing any days due to illness, his or her yearly salary would be $18,720. In other words, it would fall well below the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That’s food stamp territory. To get above the poverty line with a 40-hour week, the minimum wage would need to go above $10. At 29 hours a week, it would need to make it to $15 an hour. Right now, the highest minimum wage at a state level is in the District of Columbia at $11.50. As of now, no state is slated to go higher than that before 2018. (Some cities do set their own higher minimum wages.)

    So add it up: The idea of raising the minimum wage (“the fight for $15”) is great, but even with that $15 in such hours-restrictive circumstances, you can’t make a loaf of bread out of a small handful of crumbs. In short, no matter how you do the math, it’s nearly impossible to feed yourself, never mind a family, on the minimum wage. It’s like being trapped on an M.C. Escher staircase.

    The federal minimum wage hit its high point in 1968 at $8.54 in today’s dollars and while this country has been a paradise in the ensuing decades for what we now call the “One Percent,” it’s been downhill for low-wage workers ever since. In fact, since it was last raised in 2009 at the federal level to $7.25 per hour, the minimum has lost about 8.1% of its purchasing power to inflation. In other words, minimum-wage workers actually make less now than they did in 1968, when most of them were probably kids earning pocket money and not adults feeding their own children.

    In adjusted dollars, the minimum wage peaked when the Beatles were still together and the Vietnam War raged.


    Who Pays?

    Many of the arguments against raising the minimum wage focus on the possibility that doing so would put small businesses in the red. This is disingenuous indeed, since 20 mega-companies dominate the minimum-wage world. Walmart alone employs 1.4 million minimum-wage workers; Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) is in second place; and McDonald’s takes third. Overall, 60% of minimum-wage workers are employed by businesses not officially considered “small” by government standards, and of course carve-outs for really small businesses are possible, as was done with Obamacare.

    Keep in mind that not raising wages costs you money.

    Those minimum wage workers who can’t make enough and need to go on food assistance? Well, Walmart isn’t paying for those food stamps (now called SNAP), you are. The annual bill that states and the federal government foot for working families making poverty-level wages is $153 billion. A single Walmart Supercenter costs taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year in public assistance money, and Walmart employees account for 18% of all food stamps issued. In other words, those everyday low prices at the chain are, in part, subsidized by your tax money.

    If the minimum wage goes up, will spending on food benefits programs go down? Almost certainly. But won’t stores raise prices to compensate for the extra money they will be shelling out for wages? Possibly. But don’t worry — raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would mean a Big Mac would cost all of 17 cents more.


    Time Theft

    My retail job ended a little earlier than I had planned, because I committed time theft.

    You probably don’t even know what time theft is. It may sound like something from a sci-fi novel, but minimum-wage employers take time theft seriously. The basic idea is simple enough: if they’re paying you, you’d better be working. While the concept is not invalid per se, the way it’s used by the mega-companies reveals much about how the lowest wage workers are seen by their employers in 2016.

    The problem at my chain store was that its in-store cafe was a lot closer to my work area than the time clock where I had to punch out whenever I was going on a scheduled break. One day, when break time on my shift came around, I only had 15 minutes. So I decided to walk over to that cafe, order a cup of coffee, and then head for the place where I could punch out and sit down (on a different floor at the other end of the store).

    We’re talking an extra minute or two, no more, but in such operations every minute is tabulated and accounted for. As it happened, a manager saw me and stepped in to tell the cafe clerk to cancel my order. Then, in front of whoever happened to be around, she accused me of committing time theft — that is, of ordering on the clock. We’re talking about the time it takes to say, “Grande, milk, no sugar, please.” But no matter, and getting chastised on company time was considered part of the job, so the five minutes we stood there counted as paid work.

    At $9 an hour, my per-minute pay rate was 15 cents, which meant that I had time-stolen perhaps 30 cents. I was, that is, being nickel and dimed to death.


    Economics Is About People

    It seems wrong in a society as wealthy as ours that a person working full-time can’t get above the poverty line. It seems no less wrong that someone who is willing to work for the lowest wage legally payable must also give up so much of his or her self-respect and dignity as a kind of tariff. Holding a job should not be a test of how to manage life as one of the working poor.

    I didn’t actually get fired for my time theft. Instead, I quit on the spot. Whatever the price is for my sense of self-worth, it isn’t 30 cents. Unlike most of this country’s working poor, I could afford to make such a decision. My life didn’t depend on it. When the manager told a handful of my coworkers watching the scene to get back to work, they did. They couldn’t afford not to.




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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...

      1

      All that math leads me to one conclusion. We need to get this nation down from 330 million to perhaps 70 million. Not that America wouldn’t still have people underemployed but just not as many of them. It’s a partial solution but at least a start.

      02/20/16 9:07 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      2

      02/20/16 11:52 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      3

      “As for the statistics tracking dishonest employees, the numbers are just as disheartening.”

      Gee, they do have a heart.

      02/20/16 11:54 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      4

      Bauer- maybe we’ll all be shopping on line instead of at Kohls. I think I buy just about everything from the LL Bean catalogue and their return policy is fair.

      The last time I went into a Kohl’s dressing room it looked like I had fallen down the shut of one of those parking lot clothing donation bins. Piles of clothes up to my knees. Pity the low paid help who have to sort ou, fold and rehanger t what slobs refuse to return to the racks.

      02/20/16 12:33 PM | Comment Link

    • GregJ said...

      5

      When I got my “work permit” at 16 years old, it was my understanding that what was then call minimum wage was just that – the minimum wage an employer needs to pay an entry-level employee – teenagers.

      But also, the understanding was that as one continued working, one’s wages would increase. And that by the time one becomes an adult one makes a wage considerably above that minimum, entry-level wage.

      What changed? Something did. Partly, my understanding was wrong – apparently. I lived in a suburban, white middle class part of New England. And, due to a drab educational system, grew up knowing nothing about housing and job discrimination and segregation, poverty populations, etc.

      But I did, as I worked long at one job, and then moved on to others, made ever increasing wages. Until I was able to buy a home, while having a large salary based on my work experience over twenty years or so.

      That’s the “American Dream.” And I was part of it.

      But now, it seems like the “American Myth.” What happened?

      Part of it, I gather, is like this: A “single, adult mom” suddenly has to start working – at minimum wage! Of course it’s not a living wage! It’s a teenager’s, entry-level wage! She has to start from the bottom as if she were a teenager…

      Many people, as adults, are finding themselves, somehow, entering the “job system” at that entry-level, minimum wage. Why? How? Is that, “teenager, gets a job, leaves home, gets a better job, moves up the ladder,” schtick just that?

      (I need to buy your book Peter, and will! I kick myself for missing you when you were in Boston! as I am a $30.00 bus ride from there.)

      02/20/16 8:45 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      6

      “You Can’t Earn a Living on the Minimum Wage”

      And here’s living proof on mainstream news this morning….

      http://www.businessinsider.com/talia-jane-fired-yelp-eat24-2-2016

      Take home pay $8+. Rent..$1200+ per mo…40 miles from work..$12 per day travel. Get’s fired for posting an open letter on the net to his boss.

      Ain’t Murika great!!!!

      I hope someone slits his bosses throat.

      02/21/16 4:34 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      7

      Peter said..

      “About food: if a minimum wage worker in New York manages to work two jobs (to reach 40 hours a week) without missing any days due to illness, his or her yearly salary would be $18,720. In other words, it would fall well below the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That’s food stamp territory. ”

      Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. right. I’d kill to make the “poverty line”. Don’t take me wrong here, but let me tell you something. What most people don’t understand is, due to the economic crash in 2008, thousands and thousands of people in their 50’s and 60’s were already working at minimum or low wages. After the crash of 2008, for older people, there is nothing left but economic poverty in store.

      . In 2002, I was making $18 per hour. Highest wage I ever made, and I still couldn’t save a dime thanks to Hillary’s assault on “fathers” who were “non custodial parents …aka..child support. But I was already 58yrs old. Even in 2002, economics of my trade were dwindling. The company I worked for went under.
      At the same time, the corrupt Sacramento County Child Support DA threatened to take my home due to “arrears”, which was a blatant lie. And I proved it in a court of law. I was the first father to drag the DA into court. Unfortunately, all it did was force me to sell my house. Never underestimate the corruption in courts. Unbelievable. That’s another story though.
      Fortunately, the housing bubble was reaching it’s peak and I sold my house in one day, for top dollar.
      As soon as it sold, I packed up and moved out of California for good. To the southern coast of Oregon . That was 2003. Unfortunately, it took almost all my home sale profit, to put a down payment on another home. Now I HAD to find work immediately, of which in that area of Oregon..there was little work to find. But after 2 months of searching..I found a job. For $10 per hour. Almost half what I was getting the year before. Funny though, how glad you get just to have ANY job.

      Fast forward to 2008. The economy crashes. So does my job. I draw unemployment for 4 months. It ends..and no job. However, thank god I turned 62, and start collecting SS. It barely covers my house payment. To survive, my wife and I buy small things and refurbish to sell on ebay. Unfortunately, gas and food is skyrocketing. We slide downhill for 4yrs till ultimately we give up, and walk away from a $25k downpayment and 10yrs of $1200 per month payments. Gone. No houses were selling in our area at the time. ZERO. And jobs? Hahaha. ZERO. That’s when we had to make the only choice left for us. Move to Michigan, where my stepson had offered us a home he owned for very cheap rent. And here we are to this day. Still doing ebay, and drawing SS, which is only $1103 per month..COMBINED.

      So this is what happened to older people due to the 2008 crash. There is no alternative. You simply slip into economic poverty. PERIOD. In my area, there are hundreds of people my age in the exact same situation. And it isn’t pretty. So there you have it.
      If hindsight is 20/20, I’ll tell you this. I should have seen it coming, and prepared better. Trouble is, most people spend their working years simply trying to survive. And now it’s even worse.

      btw, that “poverty line” thing. ha. What this tells me is…if all you have to look forward to is minimum Social Security.. you better get prepared. Because you are facing poverty. Period.

      Ok..I’m done.

      02/21/16 5:21 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      8

      ut oh.

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/02/21/six-killed-in-kalamazoo-shooting-spree-were-chosen-at-random-authorities-say/

      Maybe living in the Land That Time Forgot isn’t so bad after all.

      bartender… a double shot of 100prf Manistee Forest vodka and a bottle of DirtRoad beer chaser. It’ll help eat my words from last week.

      02/21/16 10:58 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      9

      on second thought..the “alleged” killer looks like every redneck in Lake county Michigan.

      https://img.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_908w/2010-2019/Wires/Images/2016-02-21/Reuters/2016-02-21T143125Z_01_TOR410_RTRIDSP_3_MICHIGAN-SHOOTING.jpg

      In fact, the second I saw this schmuck, I thought it was my *(&&%()__)&@$%$##%* neighbor. Fucking asshole. Threatened to beat my ass for picking up firewood on his property. My son’s father in law, who is a Lake county sherriff, said he’s been arrested twice last year for assault. He’s in jail as I type.

      He’s the spitting image of the alleged killer. So who knows. You can die anywhere there are sonsabitches like this.

      02/21/16 11:10 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      10

      ps..I just wish one of these mass murderers would do his thing in Goldman Saks. Or a MIC arms trade show. Or a murdering drone pilot base. At least the victims might deserve it.

      Not that I advocate murder. But hey.. sometimes payback is a bitch. Know what I mean?

      02/21/16 11:19 AM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      11

      ps 2..man oh man. This story gets crazier by the minute.

      http://woodtv.com/2016/02/21/kzoo-county-deadly-rampage-suspect-who-is-jason-dalton/

      Something weird was definitely going on between this guys ears. Who knows. Maybe he drank some water in Flint. After all…he was an Uber driver.

      Which reminds me..I’ve got $1 that says Uber stock going down in …5..4…3…2..

      02/21/16 11:28 AM | Comment Link

    • john poole said...

      12

      Pitch , thanks for sharing. We need to share our experiences. Most of the sharing will sadly be cautionary tales.
      In 2012 I predicted that unemployment would be down from a housing bubble high of perhaps 17% to perhaps 5% just in time for the 2016 election via the usual smoke and mirrors. No one living in the real world of regular employment believes in any data the Feds releases.

      02/21/16 4:21 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...

      13

      john poole said…

      “Pitch , thanks for sharing. We need to share our experiences.”

      Yes we do. Although, I didn’t want to come across like I was crying in my beer… hahaha..no pun intended. Just trying to add to the dialog here.

      “No one living in the real world of regular employment believes in any data the Feds releases.”

      Of course not. But they do serve as the morning LOL. 🙂

      Btw, just as I figured..Uber is facing some serious backlash.. which ALWAYS fucks with their bottom line.

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/02/21/what-the-bizarre-nature-of-the-kalamazoo-shooting-says-about-ubers-background-checks/

      02/22/16 8:25 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      14

      “It seems wrong in a society as wealthy as OURS that a person working full-time can’t get above the poverty line.”

      Ours? HAHAHAHAHA

      Jimmy Carter: U.S. Is an ‘Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery’

      Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/videos/jimmy-carter-u-s-is-an-oligarchy-with-unlimited-political-bribery-20150731#ixzz4100S2dND
      Follow us: @rollingstone on Twitter | RollingStone on Facebook

      02/23/16 8:55 AM | Comment Link

    • GregJ said...

      15

      Well, since no one bit… (and no one talks directly…)

      The “American Dream” I outlined *is true* but not for a great swath of Americans.

      First, a great many “citizens” were segregated from getting jobs and housing for, literally, hundreds of years. Of course, the 1968 Civil Rights Act fixed all of that, right?

      Um, Not.

      Yeah, sure, lynchings tapered off, though there were still the occasional being drug behind a pickup truck with a chain…

      Besides, they were still all loafers and freeloaders and criminals, right.

      Um, yeah, right.

      “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. A dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination…”

      of the Conservative.

      Want to hide something from a Conservative? Put it in a book.

      Too many people in this country have been and still are denied that which a upper classes take for granted.

      But a Bernie Sanders fails with words like “jobs for African Americans so they don’t have to hang out on street corners.” He may have been marching for/with MLK, but he — the the rest of the and especially the GOP — are still very much out of touch with the reality for many Americans.

      (And maybe Mr. Van Buren will write a book about the real Americans: Native Americans.)

      02/24/16 11:21 PM | Comment Link

    • Eric Hodgdon said...

      16

      Sorry for not stopping by sooner, but I’ve been in this exciting job working at a KMART in California. Yea, $9 last year, $10 this year, but oh, only now it’s 12 hours a week until Summer/Fall.

      It’s work I guess, but they don’t want to be bothered with REWARDING for performance, nor are they too concerned with EXCELLENCE, as doing too good a job sometimes requires too much time.

      Sorry you got tired walking around. I don’t, however, as I’ll out perform the kids. At 58, I’ll occasionally run to cut time off a waiting customer. Yes, I’m insane to work above the standards, but it’s what I do. Management knows it, but there’s no reward for the effort.

      A quiet Revolution is in order via Nonviolent Action. Never give up. Never give in.

      02/25/16 6:57 PM | Comment Link

    • GregJ said...

      17

      Here is more, though it’s as if no one is listening…

      Why would a corporation have two part-time employees instead of one full-time employee?

      Because they save money. For the part-timers the company need not provide health care, overtime, paid leave, sick-time, lunch breaks, or any breaks at all, etc.

      Add “sub-contractors” and employees are really no longer employees at all as they can get fired at will and replaced at any time – and re-hired because that’s all they have…

      Unions are dead by a media that does not care and spreads the lies of “right to work” states.

      We are screwed. And so are you and your children.

      03/2/16 7:27 PM | Comment Link

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