Editor’s note: Osa Hale is a Western Washington University intern for our opinion section this summer.
At $9.19 an hour, Washington’s minimum wage is the highest in the nation. The Evergreen State is also fairly wealthy; its per-capita personal income is 12th out of all the states. Yet Seattle is seeing a surge of workers demanding a higher minimum wage: $15 is the popular number among unhappy airport and fast-food workers. (Here is a Seattle Times news story about airport workers and blog post by business news columnist Jon Talton about fast-food workers.) We are also seeing Mayor Mike McGinn take up the living wage fight with Whole Foods, according to this column by news columnist Danny Westneat, in an attempt to set a precedent in connecting use of public land to unions and wages.
This is not an isolated situation. President Barack Obama has been advocating a federal increase in minimum wage, saying it’s a priority for successful businesses to pass on their financial success to their employees.
This is something that should be addressed sooner, rather than later. Consider the big ugly financial monster facing many minimum-wage-earners: student loans.
Let’s focus on fast food. The median age of food preparation and serving workers (including fast food) is about 29 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When I think of where I want to be at 29, flipping burgers isn’t on the list. But for many, it’s a reality.
Despite a rising number of young people enrolling in secondary education (between 2000 and 2010, enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased 37 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics), fewer graduates are finding work in the field they earned a degree to enter, and nearly half of employed college grads are working jobs that do not require a college degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
I’d like to pause and dispel a myth of the lazy college grad, living with his or her parents and working as a waitress or fry cook because it’s easy.
After spending tens of thousands of dollars and years of one’s life obtaining an education, hearing this generalization is downright insulting. These days, there is no room for delusions when entering college. We sign up for heaps of debt, with the hope that it will be worth it when we graduate and, hopefully, land a job that is somewhere in or near the field we studied.
So when there isn’t room in the desired field, the college grad, saddled with rent and living expenses and the looming threat of increased interest on their student loans, looks for anything he or she can get. At a minimum wage of $9.19 an hour, a full-time employee can earn $19,115 in a year. Before taxes. The average student debt in Washington is $22,244. Before interest.
Working with that average loan balance of $22,244 and the current interest rate of 6.8 percent, a 10-year plan has a college graduate looking at paying about $256 per month.
If college graduates, who have supposedly done everything right — earned a degree, volunteered, put our lives on hold for yet another four years of education — can’t make a living wage, one that can help them out of the financial hole that their education dug for them, then what hope does anyone else have? What about people who can’t afford to go to college in the first place? Parents who lost their jobs in the recession and now must support families with whatever job they can find?
The cost of living, of education, of nearly everything has continued to rise. It’s about time the cost of labor should follow suit.