Good news, everybody! The President apparently listens to the in-depth economic conversations that happen on my porch during tea parties1 and called for a raise in the minimum wage during the State of the Union! Not only did he propose an increase to $9.00 by the end of 2015, but he demanded that it keep pace with inflation, which is awfully darn close to what I’ve been wanting the government to do.
OK, OK, I can’t take all the credit here. I’m pretty sure large numbers of labor groups, advocates, anti-poverty organizations, and others might have had similar ideas. Possibly. Certainly it’s something I wouldn’t rule out.
The point is, in the midst of a speech that dwelled heavily on the economy, the President cut to the heart of an issue that’s really hindering the ability to survive for a lot of people in the US: our disgustingly low minimum wage.
Federally, it’s set at $7.25/hour, which might be a living wage in some corners of the country, but isn’t overall, evidenced by the fact that nearly 2/5ths of US states have a higher state minimum wage -- and let's not forget that fair and equal pay are only part of a larger issue.
It’s time for the US to have a living wage, because people working 40 hours a week should have enough money to, you know. Eat. Pay rent. Pay for basic necessities. Maybe, gasp, go to the movies once in a while. Heck, buy some stuff, because isn’t that how we’re supposed to stimulate the old economy? Buyin’ stuff?
I’d argue that $9/hour still isn’t a living wage in some regions (try living in San Francisco or New York City or Chicago on that) but it is a step in the right direction, and an acknowledgment that many people in this country are making far less than they are worth, and far less than they can survive on. There’s a reason people took to the streets to protest and walked off their jobs last year to highlight issues experienced by minimum wage workers like fast food servers.
Working as an unskilled laborer or member of the service industry doesn’t mean you're worthless.
PAYING WORKERS WHAT THEY'RE WORTH? BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BOSSES?!?!
Naturally, the call for a higher minimum wage is going to cause howling from the right, which is going to make all kinds of noises about how it will destroy business and place too much of a burden on employers. These are the same excuses used by businesses across the country: “Well gosh, we’d love to pay our staff more, but we just can’t.”
When I worked for small businesses where the boss didn’t have a lifestyle that much different from mine, I totally believed that. But when my boss was living it up in the lap of luxury on the profits from the business while I was making minimum wage and struggling to pay for my inhalers, I found it a much less believable claim. Yes, paying your workers more requires taking a cut in profits.
But paying your workers more results in long-term economic gains. Not just gains for the workers themselves, who will experience a much better quality of life when they’re making something approaching a living wage, but for the economy as a whole. When people have more money, they spend it. They put it in savings so banks and credit unions can use those assets to make loans. The economy as a whole grows, rather than being trapped in this state of contraction.
The President also made a point that should appeal to the right: when people are making more money, they need less assistance from the government. Because, you know, they don’t have to apply for food stamps or other programs to supplement their meagre incomes. They’re supporting themselves! Bootstraps, everybody!
BUT...LET'S TALK ABOUT THE SUBMINIMUM WAGE
Naturally, being a pinko commie queer who is never satisfied, I’m not totally happy with the President’s minimum wage proposal, and I’d like to take a moment to articulate some of the reasons for that. One issue is that even $9 is too low; $10 would be a better start, and individual states and cities may need to raise their minimum wages even more.
And, of course, I strongly believe that along with higher wages should come paid vacation and sick leave, parental leave, and transparent wages/salaries with a clear system of promotions and advancements that everyone understands.
The government also, however, needs to eliminate loopholes in the minimum wage law. It’s time to get rid of the so-called “wait wage,” which allows businesses to underpay tipped employees per hour on the assumption that their tips will make up the difference. In businesses that do this, customers are effectively expected to directly pay the wages of their servers, and people who don’t make enough tips may be threatened with firing.
When tipped employees say they are counting on tips, they are not exaggerating.
Furthermore, the subminimum wage for disabled employees needs to go. Businesses are allowed to underpay disabled employees on the grounds that they can’t complete the same tasks as nondisabled workers, or can’t finish them at the same speed, allowing them to pay pennies on the dollar when compared with the wages for nondisabled people. That’s exploitative, it’s gross, and it needs to stop.
Especially in sheltered workshop environments, where disabled people are exploited as a cheap source of labor in a setting that allegedly provides job training and opportunities. True job training and opportunities come with a fair wage, not a subminimum wage that is impossible to support oneself on; and it’s particularly galling that many sheltered workshops are associated with organizations that claim to help disabled people. Goodwill, for example, underpays its disabled staff.
Notably, sheltered workshops don’t even work that well in terms of preparing disabled people to transition to integrated employment. What does work is supported employment, where workers plunge directly into the work force and get assistance from aides and cooperative companies who partner with them and disability organizations.
Under the subminimum wage allowances for disabled people, disabled workers are literally valued as a percentage of a human being, rather than as autonomous individuals. These reflect charity-based attitudes about disability dating back to the 1930s, rather than a more modern and disability rights-based framework which promotes independence.
Given that the Obama administration has made some important gestures of outreach to the disability rights community, including standing up for disabled athletes and vigorously pursuing legal cases fighting for the right of disabled people to live in the community, dismantling the subminimum wage for disabled people seems like a gimme.
As long as you’re reforming the minimum wage system in the US, you might as well go all the way.
1. I’m taking tea parties back, by gum. Right wingers don’t get to have all the fun. And yes, you're invited, but please RSVP so I know how many tarts to make. Return