No Matter What You Do, a Living Wage is a Must

Amid demonstrations and public pressure by lowly paid fast food workers, the state of New York has become the latest jurisdiction to increase the minimum wage, this time to $15 an hour. In response, many grumbled upon the unfairness of having burger flippers and fry cooks make as much as EMTs, firefighters, and other “more important” occupations.

In response to this pushback, a paramedic publicly shared his own thoughts on the matter, which have since gone viral. Here it is in its entirety.

Fast food workers in NY just won a $15/hr wage.

I’m a paramedic. My job requires a broad set of skills: interpersonal, medical, and technical skills, as well as the crucial skill of performing under pressure. I often make decisions on my own, in seconds, under chaotic circumstances, that impact people’s health and lives. I make $15/hr.

And these burger flippers think they deserve as much as me?

Good for them.

Look, if any job is going to take up someone’s life, it deserves a living wage. If a job exists and you have to hire someone to do it, they deserve a living wage. End of story. There’s a lot of talk going around my workplace along the lines of, “These guys with no education and no skills think they deserve as much as us? Fuck those guys.” And elsewhere on FB: “I’m a licensed electrician, I make $13/hr, fuck these burger flippers.”

And that’s exactly what the bosses want! They want us fighting over who has the bigger pile of crumbs so we don’t realize they made off with almost the whole damn cake. Why are you angry about fast food workers making two bucks more an hour when your CEO makes four hundred TIMES what you do? It’s in the bosses’ interests to keep your anger directed downward, at the poor people who are just trying to get by, like you, rather than at the rich assholes who consume almost everything we produce and give next to nothing for it.

My company, as they’re so fond of telling us in boosterist emails, cleared 1.3 billion dollars last year. They expect guys supporting families on 26-27k/year to applaud that. And that’s to say nothing of the techs and janitors and cashiers and bed pushers who make even less than us, but are as absolutely crucial to making a hospital work as the fucking CEO or the neurosurgeons. Can they pay us more? Absolutely. But why would they? No one’s making them.

The workers in NY made them. They fought for and won a living wage. So how incredibly petty and counterproductive is it to fuss that their pile of crumbs is bigger than ours? Put that energy elsewhere. Organize. Fight. Win.

Writing for EMS1.com, an online network for emergency medical services (EMS) personnel, Arthur Hsieh weighed into the subsequent debate about who deserves a decent salary or wage.

I’m no economist, but making $8.75 an hour — the current New York minimum wage — is not enough to live in New York City. In fact, a calculator hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates an adult living with one child must earn over $22 an hour to support themselves. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the same adult with one child must earn almost $28 an hour. Chicago? Over $23 an hour.

Based on that, $15 an hour really isn’t very much. By the way, that doesn’t go into effect until 2021. I wonder what the living wage in New York City will be by then?

Before you think fast food workers are a bunch of high schoolers and single young adults, take a look at who’s working behind the counter at your local fast food joint. I’m guessing many will be adults with degrees, older workers who aren’t able to find another job, and retirees who can’t afford to live on social security. Here’s one infographic showing a breakdown of fast food worker demographics; another report shows that many workers have attended college.

I never understood the notion that just because certain skilled and degree-based professions pay poorly, than so should the “less skilled”. The simple fact is that a lot of people are getting underpaid, whether they are fry cooks or professors, retail associates or medical professionals, street sweepers or firefighters. It is becoming a common problem across industries, and reflects — among many other issues — an economy geared towards enriching wealthy shareholders and investors rather than workers (hence why so much income growth is concentrated among those in the finance sector).

Instead of asking why a burger flipper or retail worker should make the same as you, ask your employer why your valuable skills are not being compensated for accordingly. Ask why executives get bonuses for your company’s success, but not the workers like you that also made it possible. Ask why a company with such high profits — many of them record breaking for the largest businesses — cannot allocate at least some of that to average workers.

The sad reality is that most middle-class jobs have been hollowed out since the recession, and will likely never recover. This leaves people of all backgrounds, skill sets, and work ethics with fewer choices besides low-paying fast-food and retail work; there is a reason those sectors have seen the most job growth in recent years.

Moreover, there are only so many management and administrative positions out there, especially now that people desperately cling to them for lack of better options. In any case, society will always need people to clean, cook, stock shelves, etc., especially as both technological and administrative innovation leaves us with fewer labor intensive occupations. If the money is there — as it clearly is for so many of the biggest yet lowest-paying companies — why not just pay people well?

It would not even be coming to this if companies took the initiative of proving the efficiency of the free market they love to tout so much. Instead of wisely investing their growing profits in their workforce — thereby boosting productivity, reducing turnover, and increasing disposable income and thus demand — the standard line across industries is to keep reducing pay and benefits while simultaneously complaining (without an apparent hint of self awareness or irony) that there is not enough demand for their goods and services.

Efficient for owners, financiers, and executives perhaps — hence why they take in disproportionate economic growth — but not for everyone else.

This collective failure, which first began in the seventies and has persisted even through the recession, is precisely why workers — be it on their own accord or via pressure on the state — are taking matters into their own hands (just as they have had to do throughout history, most notably during the height of the industrial era and its labor abuses).

And as this article and others have noted, such minimum wage rates are still not liveable in most major cities anyway. Indeed, had wage growth kept up with productivity growth, as it once did until the late seventies, it would be close to $22. Certainly not every low paid employee works hard, but the same could be said of plenty of people at the top, many of whom were born into wealth. At least executives enjoy the perks of benefits and bonuses; the average worker is expected to do their jobs with far less incentive and upward mobility.

To be sure, no one is claiming a minimum wage will solve all our economic problems, or be without any negative consequences. There will always be winners and losers with any change in policy (or lack thereof). But the key is to weigh the costs with the benefits and seek out the option that offers the most net gain. As it stands, raising the minimum wage seems to be the least bad option, given that after years of the status quo, neither incomes nor the economy as a whole is improving as much as it could be given the growth in capital.

Plus, I am pretty sure a lot of companies lost out when they had to stop employing child laborers, or had to invest in safer working conditions, or had to allow workers “only” eight hour shifts. Most businesses adapted, survived, and often times did better than before (better paid, better rested, and healthier workers do wonders for productivity and consumer demand, go figure). Those that did not survive such regulations frankly did not deserve to continue business. If the only way you can run your company is to beggar or immiserate someone, you need to reconsider your business model, not to mention your own ethics. Don’t go on about the evils of the state (however valid that may be) while trying to justify paying people poverty wages you could very well afford.

And if for any reason your business genuinely cannot afford said wages, then blame the suppliers, property owners, and other increasingly wealthy players in the economy who are squeezing everyone, worker and small business owner alike, and trying to pit them against one another. The resources and capital are they, and if they were invested more efficiently, with greater social responsibility and common business sense, perhaps workers and/or policymakers would not have to get involved. As low pay and poor treatment become the standard affair of almost every major sector, what else are people supposed to do, especially as the cost of living continues to rise?

What are your thoughts?

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