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September 3, 2013 at 6:05 AM

Raising minimum wage to an arbitrary $15 is not practical

Thursday’s fast-food strike around Seattle didn’t exactly inspire the masses to stand up and demand an immediate increase in the minimum wage. (Read The Seattle Times’ news report on the day’s activities.) As of Friday, more than 700 people voted in an informal survey posted within a Seattle Times news story. The majority were against paying fast-food workers $15 an hour.

Protestors block traffic on E. Pike St. in Seattle during rush hour Thursday Aug. 29, 2013 on their way to Broadway Avenue where they stood outside businesses and encouraged employees to join them in Seattle, Wash. They want the minimum wage to be raised to $15/hour. (AP Photo Seatte Times, Ellen M. Banner)

Protestors block traffic on E. Pike St. in Seattle during rush hour Thursday Aug. 29, 2013 on their way to Broadway Avenue where they stood outside businesses and encouraged employees to join them in Seattle, Wash. They want the minimum wage to be raised to $15/hour. (AP Photo Seatte Times, Ellen M. Banner)

Public opinion changes all the time. If folks have little sympathy for the $15 minimum wage movement right now, perhaps it’s because the discussion is too focused on an arbitrary figure of $15 and not focused enough on investing in education and programs to help people gain the skills they need to compete in today’s economy.

True, a lot of employees in fast-food restaurants are not moving up. They’re stuck. The answer shouldn’t be to raise wages for all, though. Washington state already boasts the highest minimum wage in the nation — $9.19 compared to the federal rate of $7.25 per hour. We should instead encourage more opportunities for employees to access tools and training to move into higher positions and experience upward mobility. Or consider an incremental approach to raising wages that doesn’t place business owners in the position of suddenly raising payroll costs by 60 percent. How about funding education so that the children of these low-wage workers can break the cycle of poverty? Or free birth control, so that people have the power to decide when they can afford to expand their families?

I grew up watching my parents and their fellow Vietnamese immigrants take on hard-labor jobs by day while attending night school. Family members often lived under the same roof to save money. I spent my teen years and early 20s working in my parents’ restaurant with plenty of other food-service workers. The whole experience reinforced a practical notion: Good employers like flexibility and having the autonomy to decide when they can reward solid workers with raises and promotions — and some workers need an incentive to motivate them to do their best work.

In a Thursday write-up for The Atlantic, reporter Derek Thompson brings up several compelling points to explain why the national efforts to increase wages by holding fast-food worker strikes is likely to flounder. This particular argument resonates with the times we live in:

[T]he collapse of middle-income stalwarts like manufacturing has left a glut of young low-skill workers who are rushing to fill local service-sector needs at big-box stores and fast-food chains. And that, to me, suggests another thing: That there are more people willing to do these jobs than there are people willing to strike.

Other skeptics of the $15 minimum wage include Gov. Jay Inslee. According to a Thursday Seattle Times news report, Inslee says he supports a discussion on living wages (and Thursday’s fast-food strike), but disagrees with the $15 minimum. My colleague, Bruce Ramsey, published a timely column this week outlining the possible unintended consequences for SeaTac businesses (not the bigwigs like Alaska Airlines) if voters pass a citywide initiative to establish a $15 minimum for airport workers. Restaurants will have to limit services and hours will likely be reduced at local hotels. Not good.

Let’s talk about how to get people on their feet and off public assistance. Everyone deserves the dignity of making a fair wage. Unions, employers and workers have a right to negotiate what that means. Raising hourly pay is a solution, but it’s not the only one.

0 Comments | Topics: fast-food workers, living wage, minimum wage

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