• Life in the New American Minimum-Wage Economy with the Ghosts of Tom Joad

    June 20, 2015 // 3 Comments »

    There are many sides to whistleblowing. The one that most people don’t know about is the very personal cost, prison aside, including the high cost of lawyers and the strain on family relations, that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience. Here’s a part of my own story I’ve not talked about much before.

    At age 53, everything changed. Following my whistleblowing first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I was run out of the good job I had held for more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of State. As one of its threats, State also took aim at the pension and benefits I’d earned, even as it forced me into retirement. Would my family and I lose everything I’d worked for as part of the retaliation campaign State was waging? I was worried. That pension was the thing I’d counted on to provide for us and it remained in jeopardy for many months. I was scared.

    My skill set was pretty specific to my old job. The market was tough in the Washington, D.C. area for someone with a suspended security clearance. Nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy, and I needed some money. All the signs pointed one way — toward the retail economy and a minimum-wage job.

    And soon enough, I did indeed find myself working in exactly that economy and, worse yet, trying to live on the money I made. But it wasn’t just the money. There’s this American thing in which jobs define us, and those definitions tell us what our individual futures and the future of our society is likely to be. And believe me, rock bottom is a miserable base for any future.

    Old World/New World

    The last time I worked for minimum wage was in a small store in my hometown in northern Ohio. It was almost a rite of passage during high school, when I pulled in about four bucks an hour stocking shelves alongside my friends. Our girlfriends ran the cash registers and our moms and dads shopped in the store. A good story about a possible date could get you a night off from the sympathetic manager, who was probably the only adult in those days we called by his first name. When you graduated from high school, he would hire one of your friends and the cycle would continue.

    At age 53, I expected to be quizzed about why I was looking for minimum-wage work in a big box retail store we’ll call “Bullseye.” I had prepared a story about wanting some fun part-time work and a new experience, but no one asked or cared. It felt like joining the French Foreign Legion, where you leave your past behind, assume a new name, and disappear anonymously into the organization in some distant land. The manager who hired me seemed focused only on whether I’d show up on time and not steal. My biggest marketable skill seemed to be speaking English better than some of his Hispanic employees. I was, that is, “well qualified.”

    Before I could start, however, I had to pass a background and credit check, along with a drug test. Any of the anonymous agencies processing the checks could have vetoed my employment and I would never have known why. You don’t have any idea what might be in the reports the store receives, or what to feel about the fact that some stranger at a local store now knows your financial and criminal history, all for the chance to earn seven bucks an hour.

    You also don’t know whether the drug tests were conducted properly or, as an older guy, if your high blood pressure medicine could trigger a positive response. As I learned from my co-workers later, everybody always worries about “pissing hot.” Most places that don’t pay much seem especially concerned that their workers are drug-free. I’m not sure why this is, since you can trade bonds and get through the day higher than a bird on a cloud. Nonetheless, 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.

    Now a valued member of the Bullseye team, I was told to follow another employee who had been on the job for a few weeks, do what he did, and then start doing it by myself by the end of my first shift. The work was dull but not pointless: put stuff on shelves; tell customers where stuff was; sweep up spilled stuff; repeat.

    Basic Training

    It turned out that doing the work was easy compared to dealing with the job. I still had to be trained for that.

    You had to pay attention, but not too much. Believe it or not, that turns out to be an acquired skill, even for a former pasty government bureaucrat like me. Spend enough time in the retail minimum-wage economy and it’ll be trained into you for life, but for a newcomer, it proved a remarkably slow process. Take the initiative, get slapped down. Break a rule, be told you’re paid to follow the rules. Don’t forget who’s the boss. (It’s never you.) It all becomes who you are.

    Diving straight from a salaried career back into the kiddie pool was tough. I still wanted to do a good job today, and maybe be a little better tomorrow. At first, I tried to think about how to do the simple tasks more efficiently, maybe just in a different order to save some walking back and forth. I knew I wasn’t going to be paid more, but that work ethic was still inside of me. The problem was that none of us were supposed to be trying to be good, just good enough. If you didn’t know that, you learned it fast. In the process, you felt yourself getting more and more tired each day.

    Patient Zero in the New Economy

    One co-worker got fired for stealing employee lunches out of the break room fridge. He apologized to us as security marched him out, saying he was just hungry and couldn’t always afford three meals. I heard that when he missed his rent payments he’d been sleeping in his car in the store parking lot. He didn’t shower much and now I knew why. Another guy, whose only task was to rodeo up stray carts in the parking lot, would entertain us after work by putting his cigarette out on his naked heel. The guys who came in to clean up the toilets got up each morning knowing that was what they would do with another of the days in their lives.

    Other workers were amazingly educated. One painted in oils. One was a recent college grad who couldn’t find work and liked to argue with me about the deeper meanings in the modern fiction we’d both read.

    At age 53, I was the third-oldest minimum-wage worker in the store. A number of the others were single moms. (Sixty-four percent of minimum-wage employees are women. About half of all single-parent families live in poverty.) There was at least one veteran. (“The Army taught me to drive a Humvee, which turns out not to be a marketable skill.”) There were a couple of students who were alternating semesters at work with semesters at community college, and a small handful of recent immigrants. One guy said that because another big box store had driven his small shop out of business, he had to take a minimum-wage job. He was Patient Zero in our New Economy.

    State law only required a company to give you a break if you worked six hours or more under certain conditions. Even then, it was only 30 minutes — and unpaid. You won’t be surprised to discover that, at Bullseye, most non-holiday shifts were five-and-a-half hours or less. Somebody said it might be illegal not to give us more breaks, but what can you do? Call 911 like it was a real crime?

    Some good news, though. It turned out that I had another marketable skill in addition to speaking decent English: being old. One day as a customer was bawling out a younger worker over some imagined slight, I happened to wander by. The customer assumed I was the manager, given my age, and began directing her complaints at me. I played along, even steepling my fingers to show my sincere concern just as I had seen actual managers do. The younger worker didn’t get in trouble, and for a while I was quite popular among the kids whenever I pulled the manager routine to cover them.

    Hours were our currency. You could trade them with other employees if they needed a day off to visit their kid’s school. You could grab a few extra on holidays. If you could afford it, you could swap five bad-shift hours for three good-shift hours. The store really didn’t care who showed up as long as someone showed up. Most minimum-wage places cap workers at under 40 hours a week to avoid letting them become “full time” and so possibly qualify for any kind of benefits. In my case, as work expanded and contracted, I was scheduled for as few as seven hours a week and I never got notice until the last moment if my hours were going to be cut.

    Living on a small paycheck was hard enough. Trying to budget around wildly varying hours, and so paychecks, from week to week was next to impossible. Seven hours a week at minimum wage was less than 50 bucks. A good week around the Christmas rush was 39 hours, or more than $270. At the end of 2013, after I had stopped working at Bullseye, the minimum wage did go up from a little more than $7 to $8 an hour, which was next to no improvement at all. Doesn’t every little bit help? Maybe, but what are a few more crumbs of bread worth when you need a whole loaf not to be hungry?

    Working to Be Poor

    So how do you live on $50 a week, or for that matter, $270 a week? Cut back? Recycle cans?

    One answer is: You don’t live on those wages alone. You can’t. Luckily I had some savings, no kids left in the house to feed, and my wife was still at her “good” job.  Many of my co-workers, however, dealt with the situation by holding down two or three minimum-wage jobs. Six hours on your feet is tough, but what about 12 or 14? And remember, there are no weekends or holidays in most minimum-wage jobs. Bullseye had even begun opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoons.

    The smart workers found their other jobs in the same strip mall as our Bullseye, so they could run from one to the next, cram in as many hours as they could, and save the bus fare. It mattered: At seven bucks an hour, that round trip fare meant you worked your first 45 minutes not for Bullseye but for the bus company. (The next 45 minutes you worked to pay taxes.)

    Poverty as a Profit Center

    Many low-wage workers have to take some form of public assistance. Food stamps — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — were a regular topic of conversation among my colleagues. Despite holding two or three jobs, there were still never enough hours to earn enough to eat enough. SNAP was on a lot of other American’s minds as well — the number of people using food stamps increased by 13 percent a year from 2008 to 2012. About 1 in 7 Americans get some of their food through SNAP. About 45 percent of food stamp benefits go to children.

    Enjoying that Big Mac? Here’s one reason it’s pretty cheap and that the junk sold at “Bullseye” and the other big box stores is, too: Those businesses get away with paying below a living wage and instead you, the taxpayer, help subsidize those lousy wages with SNAP. (And of course since minimum-wage workers have taxes deducted, too, they are — imagine the irony — essentially forced to subsidize themselves.)

    That subsidy does not come cheap, either. The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry alone is nearly $7 billion per year. McDonald’s workers alone account for $1.2 billion in federal assistance annually.

    All that SNAP money is needed to bridge the gap between what the majority of employed people earn through the minimum wage, and what they need to live a minimum life. Nearly three-quarters of enrollments in America’s major public benefits programs involve working families stuck in jobs like I had. There are a lot of those jobs, too. The positions that account for the most workers in the U.S. right now are retail salespeople, cashiers, restaurant workers, and janitors. All of those positions pay minimum wage or nearly so. Employers are actually allowed to pay below minimum wage to food workers who might receive tips.

    And by the way, if somehow at this point you’re feeling bad for Walmart, don’t. In addition to having it’s workforce partially paid for by the government, Walmart also makes a significant portion of its profits by selling to people receiving federal food assistance. Though the Walton family is a little too shy to release absolute numbers, a researcher found that in one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts together received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars. One Walmart Supercenter in Tulsa, Oklahoma, received $15.2 million, while another (also in Tulsa) took in close to $9 million in SNAP spending.

    You could say that taxpayers are basically moneylenders to a government that is far more interested in subsidizing business than in caring for their workers, but would anyone believe you?

    Back in the Crosshairs

    Some employees at Bullseye had been yelled at too many times or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were not only broke, but broken. People — like dogs — don’t get that way quickly, only by a process of erosion eating away at whatever self-esteem they may still possess. Then one day, if a supervisor tells them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’ll be too afraid of contradicting the boss not to do it.

    I’d see employees rushing in early, terrified, to stand by the time clock so as not to be late. One of my fellow workers broke down in tears when she accidentally dropped something, afraid she’d be fired on the spot. And what a lousy way to live that is, your only incentive for doing good work being the desperate need to hang onto a job guaranteed to make you hate yourself for another day. Nobody cared about the work, only keeping the job. That was how management set things up.

    About 30 million Americans work this way, live this way, at McJobs. These situations are not unique to any one place or region. After all, Walmart has more than 2 million employees. If that company were an army, it would be the second largest military on the planet, just behind China. It is, in fact, the largest overall employer in the country and the biggest employer in 25 states. When Walmart won’t pay more than minimum, it hurts. When it rains like that, we all get wet. This is who we are now.

    I Was Minimum

    It’s time to forget the up-by-the-bootstraps fantasies of conservative economists bleating on Fox. If any of it was ever true, it’s certainly not true anymore. There is no ladder up, no promotion path in the minimum-wage world. You can’t work “harder” because your hours are capped, and all the jobs are broken into little pieces anyone could do anyway. Minimum wage is what you get; there are no real raises. I don’t know where all the assistant managers came from, but not from among us.

    I worked in retail for minimum wage at age 16 and again at 53. In that span, the minimum wage itself rose only by a few bucks. What changed, however, is the cast of characters. Once upon a time, minimum-wage jobs were filled with high school kids earning pocket money. In 2014, it’s mainly adults struggling to get by. Something is obviously wrong.

    In his State of the Union Address, President Obama urged that the federal minimum wage be raised to $9 an hour. He also said that a person holding down a full-time job should not have to live in poverty in a country like America.

    To the president I say, yes, please, do raise the minimum wage. But how far is nine bucks an hour going to go? Are so many of us destined to do five hours of labor for the cell phone bill, another 12 for the groceries each week, and 20 or 30 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, not in the way Americans once defined raising a family when our country emerged from World War II so fat and happy. And you can’t build a nation on vast armies of working poor with nowhere to go. The president is right that it’s time for a change, but what’s needed is far more than a minimalist nudge to the minimum wage. 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. Some sort of rebalancing. Those aren’t answers to everything, but they might be a start.

    People who work deserve to be paid, but McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson last year took home $13.7 million in salary, with perks to go. If one of his fry cooks put in 30 hours a week, she’d take in a bit more than $10,000 a year — before taxes, of course. There is indeed a redistribution of wealth taking place in America, and it’s all moving upstream.

    I got lucky. I won my pension fight with my “career” employer, the State Department, and was able to crawl out of the minimum-wage economy after less than a year and properly retire. I quit Bullseye because I could, one gray day when a customer about half my age cursed me out for something unimportant she didn’t like, ending with “I guess there’s a reason why people like you work at places like this.” I agreed with her: There is a reason. We just wouldn’t agree on what it was.

    I’m different now for the experience. I think more about where I shop, and try to avoid big places that pay low wages if I can. I treat minimum-wage workers a little better, too. If I have to complain about something in a store, I keep the worker out of it and focus on solving the problem. I take a bit more care in the restroom not to leave a mess. I don’t get angry anymore when a worker says to me, “I really can’t do anything about it.” Now I know from personal experience that, in most cases, they really can’t.

    Above all, I carry with me the knowledge that economics isn’t about numbers, it’s about people. I know now that it’s up to us to decide whether the way we pay people, the work we offer them, and how we treat them on the job is just about money or if it’s about society, about how we live, who we are, the nature of America. The real target now should be to look deeply into the apartheid of dollars our country has created and decide it needs to change. We — the 99 percent, anyway — can’t afford not to.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage

    How Many Miles Can You Drive on a Gallon of Blood? Our Future is Feudalism

    June 24, 2014 // 13 Comments »

    There is much talk about the minimum wage. What was once a way for teenagers and college kids to earn a little pocket money has devolved into the take-home pay for a vast swath of America. Defenders of a low minimum wage insist that most of us benefit from workers being paid very little; lower wages mean lower costs for Walmart and others, and so lower prices for us.

    Makes sense, except that it is not true.

    The difference between what Walmart pays the majority of its employees and what those employees need is made up by taxpayers in the form of food stamps and other assistance. Walmart is America’s largest private employer, so we’ll use them here for most of the examples, but this applies across the board.

    Choose your statistic to understand the problem: about 25% of all employed people in the U.S. receive some form of public assistance; in the fast food industry, it is 53%. About 1 out of every 3 retail workers gets public assistance. In sum, American taxpayers subsidize the minimum wage with $7 billion in public assistance.

    Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Low Everyday Prices

    Let’s break it into a smaller piece: After analyzing data released by Wisconsin’s Medicaid program, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimates that a single 300-person WalMart in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $5,815 per Walmart associate in public assistance paid.

    It isn’t about more hours: The families of more than half of the fast-food workers employed 40 or more hours per week are still enrolled in public assistance. More hours at a low wage still does not equal a living wage.

    Now, if you’re a certain kind of person, just stop reading here. In a country with such abundance as America, people should not starve to death, being told on the way down to “get a job, loser.” And none of this is about the politics of left and right; it is about the politics of up and down. The answer is not to cut public assistance, the working poor be damned, let them eat cake. If you want that kind of society, go troll some other web site. The answer is for companies to pay a living wage. If they won’t do it voluntarily, then we must raise the minimum wage. It has not gone up since 2009 and it is damn well time for it to do so. In fact, we can’t afford not to.

    But Won’t Raising the Minimum Wage Raise Prices? Cost Jobs?

    Let’s tackle the easy stuff first. No business offers paying jobs as a public service. They hire people to make money. When they need more workers to make more money, they hire more. When they no longer need those workers, they lay them off. Ever heard of Christmas help? A higher minimum wage will not cause businesses to cut jobs; they can’t do that. Who’d cook the burgers?

    What about higher prices? The quick answer should be obvious by now. Whatever you think you are saving at the cash register in Walmart due to those lower wages, you as a taxpayer are paying anyway in taxes to feed the woman ringing you up. If store paid a living wage, step one would a lessening in demand for public assistance. Ka-ching, lower taxes!

    But let’s follow the money. Walmart consistently pays the lowest wages they possibly can, and claims that keeps prices down. Walmart is not alone in this practice; the average family’s income is lower today than at any point in the last ten years, income inequality more extreme than at any point since before the Great Depression. The U.S. now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world. The fall in wages parallels another trend line: in January of 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union membership had reached a 97 year low in America.

    Welcome to Feudalism

    Where could the money to pay workers a living wage come from, except of course by raising prices?

    The top one percent of income earners garnered 93 percent of income gains in the recent recovery. In the third quarter of 2012, corporate profits reached $1.75 trillion, their greatest share of GDP in history. During that same quarter, workers’ wages fell to their lowest share of GDP on record. The top six members of the Walton family (owners of Walmart) own as much wealth as 48 million other Americans combined. Meanwhile, among 35 economically advanced nations, the U.S. has the second highest rate of child poverty, 23%, just slightly better than Romania.


    How Many Miles Can You Drive on a Gallon of Blood?

    If I had a crayon I’d draw you a picture, but I think you don’t really need that at this point. None of this is accidental, some sort of invisible hand at work.

    Companies will continue to demand Federal, state and local governments keep the minimum wage as low as possible. The same corporate entities will then continue to have those low wages subsidized by the taxpayers. Companies will continue to spew out propaganda to convince those same taxpayers that people on public assistance are lazy cheats, and that low wages mean low prices. Capping wages at 2009 levels assures that any broad rise in societal prosperity will not reach low-wage workers, and there is no broad upward path for retail workers and fry cooks. It’s not about education, either: the percentage of low-wage workers with at least some college education has spiked 71 percent since 1979, to now encompass over 43% of all low-wage workers. Meanwhile more and more money will be hoovered up by an ever-concentrated group of the super wealthy, squeezing their workers tighter and tighter. Hey, how many miles can you drive on a gallon of blood?

    In today’s America, even working full-time, at most jobs you can’t earn enough to live with government assistance. More and more of everything is owned by fewer and fewer people. If you look that stuff up in a reference book, it is called feudalism. It is our future, and, of course, thank you for shopping at Walmart!




    BONUS: Charles Ferguson, director of the Wall Street documentary “Inside Job” wrote:

    Far from being in an era of brutal partisan warfare, as conventional wisdom holds and as watching the nightly television news might suggest, the United States is now in the grip of a political duopoly in which both parties are thoroughly complicit. They play a game: they agree to fight viciously over certain things to retain the allegiance of their respective bases, while agreeing not to fight about anything that seriously endangers the privileges of America’s new financial elites. Whether this duopoly will endure, and what to do about it, are perhaps the most important questions facing Americans. The current arrangement all but guarantees the continuing decline of the United States as a nation, and of the welfare of the bottom 90% of its citizens.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage