Misplaced rage over minimum wage: Workers need options to leave burgers behind

The recent marching and walkouts in protest of the minimum wage rate at fast-food restaurants – and demands for a higher one – are a bit misplaced. At $7.40 an hour, it is far from being generous or enough for a family to sustain themselves. Understood. However, the outrage and energy could be better aimed at addressing the problem of low-wage employment.

Fast-food restaurants have long been a place for teens to find their first jobs, or for seniors looking to remain active after retirement. They offer low-skilled positions with a wage commensurate with the requirements, or lack thereof.

Entry-level fast-food jobs were never intended to be permanent employment, nor should they be seen as such; instead, they are starter or transitional employment with the opportunity and intent of providing a skill set and incentive for higher-level work, even if in the same industry.

The graduation and illiteracy rates in Michigan are abysmal, at best. As a result, we have too many residents who are undereducated and under- or all-out unemployable. This problem does not justify raising the wage to meet these compromised qualifications. To do so would be a false seal of approval for failure and lack of training both by the person and a system that should help prepare them.

To raise the minimum wage to a level comparable to those who are better-educated and with a higher skill set would send the wrong signal. It says education isn’t necessary and job readiness isn’t needed. It invalidates the connection between preparation and quality of life.

While the energy and efforts invested in increasing the wage to $15 are admirable, I believe those same efforts would be better-served by working to address the factors that help place many workers into positions with few options and no growth potential. It starts by having a candid discussion and very loud call to action.

That discussion needs to be about the reality of education, preparation and options. Either you prepare to succeed, or you don’t prepare and fail. Period. Certainly there are variables that impact lives and the potential for livelihood, and those issues should be considered and an appropriate means of support implemented. The bootstrap theory won’t work who don’t have boots. Yet, a myopic approach to solving the outcomes of otherwise complicated and overlooked contributing factors are not a real solution.

We need to look at a transitional solution for those who may have fallen through the cracks, thus allowing them to move up and out of an unproductive economic circumstance rather than compensate them for being there as well as the myriad issues contributing to their plight. Many who show up for retraining do so with a third- or found-grade reading level. That must be addressed long before adulthood. Let’s not forget that pictures were added to cash registers in fast food restaurants to compensate for the workers who were unable to read. That is not helping the problem.

Rather than walk-outs, how about a rally for increased graduation rates, parent-teacher conference attendance, and higher, not skewed, performance scores for math, reading and science; let’s see higher interest and participation in the paid apprenticeships offered by local unions; and let’s have the discussion about vocational training for those for whom college isn’t a fit. Let’s take a look at even the government cracks that seem to widen, thus enveloping too many.

We must not be comfortable with, comforting to or compensate the status quo or underperformance. And, we must all understand that a one-solution approach to a problem with myriad factors in the end solves nothing. More importantly, we must address the contributing factors, not validate the problem.

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Robert Burgess
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 8:12am
I agree with Susan's notion that we all should support better education and training for our young people. I agree that in some schools, but certainly not all, test scores and graduation rates are abysmal. Graduation rates at our community colleges are less than stellar. The root cause of this? That's debatable. However, I would argue that poverty and racism play some significant part. The simple fact that metro-Detroit is one of the most segregated areas in the country with some census tracts (and school attendance areas) with the highest concentration of poverty in the country should be evidence enough of this. On the other hand, Michigan has lost hundreds of thousands of high paying manufacturing jobs in the last decade. Why? That is also debatable. Ross Perot would have argued about NAFTA and the "giant sucking sound". Some would argue that the United States (and Michigan in particular) had little competition after World War II since factories in Europe, Japan, Korea, and China had been devastated and needed to rebuild. Perhaps, American manufacturers were complacent? Still, many folks find themselves in low paying service jobs for a variety of reasons: low skills, lack of other employment, etc. Others have disabilities and for them a meaningful work experience is a low skilled job where they can feel they contribute to society and their own well being. Susan apparently feels her right to cheap burgers tops the rights of the working poor to a fair and living wage. I disagree. Pony up a few extra coins for your burger (and your cup of tea) Susan. You probably don't mind paying $5 for a latte at Starbucks. So, why should you balk at paying 50 cents extra for a burger at Mickey Dees?
Jon Blakey
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 12:38pm
Well said, Mr. Burgess. I agree that Karen's answer is also too simplistic and unrealistic in the short term, for the problem of substandard wages in many areas of the service industry. There is also fact that the minimum wage has not even kept up with inflation. Inflation adjusted is still not going to be $15/hour or enough to live on, but I am tired of subsidizing American corporations willing to boost their profits on the backs of the working poor. Tax payers end up footing the social safety net bill and corporations hide their profits from taxes overseas. Sometimes non-rational changes need to be looked at in the name of social justice.
Duane
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 5:09pm
Mr. Burgess, Mr. Blakey, I wonder if when you spend your money you pay the higher price for the goods you buy or whether you pay the price that provides the best value to you? Which do you think an employer should do pay for the best value they are provided by an employee or pay what other feel they should? When you go to a restraunt do you tip all serves 15. 20, 25%? Do you match you tip with the service you recieve? If you pay more then the value provide you are simply reinforcing the practice of over charging and under serving. One of the problems for people trying to retain jobs is their lack of understanding of the work 'ethic'. I have heard form some of those who work in placing the unemployed that the have a lack of understanding of the importance to an employer that an employee arrive for work on time, that they dress appropriately for the work, and that they respect those they work with and the work environment they are in. For many people that knowledge is learned in their younger years, most commonly when they take their first jobs. Fast food is one such place to be taught the work ethic. If an employee has neither the technical knowledge and skills or the 'work ethic' then that employer must terach them. Why should an employer have to pay double the current rate while they are training such employees? Our society benefits from people learning the 'work ethic' so I am glad the fast food industry is willing to provide that training. Many employers get government subsidies for training their employees, do you believe the State of Michigfan should be subsidizing the 'work ethic' training the fast food employers are providing?
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 7:53pm
The problem with your solution about ponying up a few extra coins is that most people in cities like Detroit, can barely afford a hamburger, now. If these employees got they demands met, that would force a lot of their employers to raise prices to the point where their customers would stop patronizing their employer, ending up with them losing their jobs. That is like shooting themselves in the foot.
Robert Burgess
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 8:22am
Sorry, Karen. Confused your last name with the writer for MLIVE.
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 9:55am
The biggest untapped resource being wasted is the millions of citizens living at or near poverty that today are most worried about living day to day. The Republicans have no problem with giving subsidies to oil companies to keep drilling for oil so it will be inexpensive to fill up their tank tomorrow. We recognize that some oil wells come up dry, but that is part of the cost of doing business That same Republican rants about providing food stamps to our greatest resource, our citizens, so they can get past thinking about feeding their family and begin to invest in their families future.That same Republican is against providing funds for early school education so we are better able to keep up with China 15 to 20 years from now. It is time us Republicans become wiser investors in this countries resources. I guess we do not put much value on human capital included in the 47% Romney referred to during the campaign. We are short-term thinkers.... http://lstrn.us/14TyGcu
Duane
Sun, 08/18/2013 - 11:34am
“While the energy and efforts invested in increasing the wage to $15 are admirable…” what is admirable about what Ms. Dumas says is a distraction from what she feels should be the focus of those efforts. Ms. Dumas does what is a contributing factor in the decline in the education of those who can only find minimum wage jobs. Just as decades ago when people made the push that academic advancement should be more about the feelings of those being educated than their learning accomplishments and that simply being present should be encouraged so is Ms. Dumas praising those who want to perpetuate this approach in the workplace by saying how admirable those she disagrees with are. Ms. Dumas undermines all of her points by praising those who are the barrier to achieving what she believes. Ms. Dumas should learn that we should not judge the people (by saying how admirable they are), rather the judgment should be about the actions and the ideas. I love my children, but I do not praise them then they do wrong, I do not confuse them with personal praise about who they are and how much I care for them when I am trying to change what they are doing or saying. Similarly with my peers, who I like, I do not tell them how much I like them the same time I am trying to convince them that I disagree with their actions or their ideas. When you merge your feeling toward the person with your disagreeing with their actions and ideas you are at best confusing them and more likely they are taking it as encouragement for their actions and become upset emotionally because you are challenging their actions. Judge the actions not the person.
jean kozek
Mon, 08/19/2013 - 9:17am
I've had a difficult time understanding the point of this article. Dumas seems to argue that jobs that require physical labor such as a McDonald's job of washing floors, standing for hours over steaming oil vapors, etc. are jobs that shouldn't pay a living wage because they don't require a higher level of education in order to perform them. And, she's concerned about a company's profitability. In the case of McDonalds, for every $1 taken in, only 17 cents is used to pay workers. McDonalds won't go broke if wages are doubled! Many jobs require physical labor: shingling roofs, toting luggage at an airport, reaching awkward locations to tend to water pipes, hanging electrical wires, paving roads and building bridges. All of these and more are jobs critical to the daily needs of citizens and businesses. Perhaps some require more education and training than others, all take a toll on the human body. These workers also deserve a living wage. In the other topic of this article, Dumas tells of the less educated assuming they are less educated by choice rather than circumstance. It is erroneous of Dumas to assume that large numbers of American students and MI students more specifically are poorly educated and not college or career prepared. Students from wealthy and middle income families perform equally well to those equals in other countries. It is our children of the poor income families who continue to do poorly and worse than those in other countries. Often the amount of tax dollars spent on schools in lower income neighborhoods are less per pupil than that available in other communities. So, students who may be bilingual or simply from homes where the parent or parents work low income jobs, maybe working two jobs, begin kindergarten with weak social and educational readiness because the family situation doesn't provide them. IF our society values these children and wants them to have a fair opportunity as adults to earn a middle income wage, then as a society we need to put more tax dollars into the school districts where these children live. They need early childhood schooling; they need very small class sizes in grades Kindergarten thru 3rd to better insure these children can read at grade level. Perhaps they need a longer school day that provides both more time spent on mental skill development as well as physical activities. And, they probably need a good breakfast and lunch provided at no additional cost to the family. Without such a support system, the number of children who continue to struggle and fail in school and will continue as adults to struggle to make a working wage will grow. Perhaps a third issue that Dumas mentions in this article is that college and/or career training is the answer to the cause of pay disparity. In today's economic climate that argument seems less true. Today the median wage in the U.S. is $50,000. IF, since the 1980s wages had been adjusted for cost of living, median wages would be $90,000 a year. Regardless of productivity and skill/education required, wages have stagnated. Children from middle class families don't get the financial help to pay for continuing their education because their families don't make enough money. It seems likely that in this next generation, more Americans will join the ranks of the working poor. There appears to be a struggle between whether corporations or individuals/families should benefit from greater business profits. Right now shareholders and CEOs seem to be the sole beneficiaries.
Charles Richards
Mon, 08/19/2013 - 5:03pm
Ms. Kozek is candid and honest when she says, "I’ve had a difficult time understanding the point of this article" Indeed she doesn't understand. People are not compensated on the basis of how much effort, physical or mental, they put forth. They are compensated for the value they contribute to society. If somebody spent all day performing an arduous task such as carrying a fifty pound box of bricks from one end of a vacant lot to the other ,a task that contributed absolutely no value to society, would they deserve a "living wage"? No. No, of course not. Nor is it a matter of whether or not a job requires special training or education. It is how productive of value a person is that determines their compensation. And she says of jobs that require physical labor that "All of these and more are jobs critical to the daily needs of citizens and businesses." This is irrelevant. Water is absolutely critical to people's survival, yet it is inexpensive. Diamonds aren't critical to very much, but they are expensive. And she is fundamentally mistaken when she says, "It is erroneous of Dumas to assume that large numbers of American students and MI students more specifically are poorly educated and not college or career prepared." That is, in fact, precisely the case. Our students are far behind their competitors in other nations. But she is absolutely correct when she says, "Often the amount of tax dollars spent on schools in lower income neighborhoods are less per pupil than that available in other communities."
dan brown
Mon, 08/19/2013 - 3:18pm
FDR had it correct when he said something like: If a business can't pay a living wage, it shouldn't be in business.
Scott
Mon, 08/19/2013 - 3:30pm
The minimum wage should be left as is; maybe even lowered a bit. Let's assume for a moment that the government raises it to $10/hour. What will the car wash worker down the street from McDonald's do? He/she is busting ass working in heat and cold, getting wet and dirty and sore, making $9.00. That person will say, "I'm going to work at McDonald's for $10 and work inside in a clean, dry, air-conditioned place." So the car wash owner loses his employees unless he raises his wages to $12. What will the roofer for a local contractor then do? He is really busting his ass, not to mention risking it, for $11 an hour. He says, "I can go work at the car wash for more money and the job is a lot easier." And so on, and so on. Countless wages will go up, because the market for labor is comparative to the skill/risk. Wise up people! This is why liberals love higher minimum wages: because it will cause a rise in wages for millions who are already above minimum. But is it REAL GROWTH in income? Of course not! Liberals who say it is are either fools or liars (I say both). Prices of almost everything will rise. Or, businesses will install technology to eliminate the order takers, eliminate the guy who towels your car dry, etc. Don't forget that FICA (paid by both workers AND their employers) and Medicare tax will go because it is a percentage of wages. This will make the government happy of course. But the poor employee who now has more money in this pocket finds himself paying more taxes and higher prices, and he is worse off than before the raise to $10. This, my friends, does not require a PhD in economics to understand.
Charles Richards
Mon, 08/19/2013 - 5:07pm
My compliments to Karen Dumas. She talks eminent sense; one of the few local commentators who do. I look forward to reading more of what she has to say. She has made my day.
Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 2:44pm
So let me see... we ought not to consider a raise in the minimum wage to anything close to "livable" because "To do so would be a false seal of approval for failure and lack of training both by the person and a system that should help prepare them." That rationale seems downright hard-hearted, cruel and demeaning in an of itself. I much prefer this... “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” and... “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Jim Carravallah
Sat, 08/31/2013 - 9:16am
One little thing is missing here. Absence of better paying jobs outside the fast food industry.is the reason workers are picketing for living wages. If the only job available to attempt support for a family is at a fast food order window, a worker having no other options will take it. Instead of picking on workers who want to improve their return for hard labor, it might be better to look at the state plan which takes spending money out of consumer pockets to cover the cost of government while giving tax breaks to businessmen who depend on consumer spending for their business growth. The problem with business isn't that the owners don't get to keep enough money to spend after taxes, it's that the owners don't have enough consumers to buy their goods to generate profits.