WORKING STRATEGIES COLUMN: Minimum Wage Increases – 10 points to consider

Like many cities across the country, my hometown of St. Paul is currently embroiled in a discussion about raising the minimum wage. Many believe that an increase to $15 an hour is certain, with the debate mostly focused on specific issues, such as “carveouts” that allow exceptions for tipped workers or those who are learning their jobs.

I am not happy with this turn of events. While I firmly support minimum wage as a concept, I disagree with nearly every aspect of the proposals under review in St. Paul, including the wage itself, which I find to be high. I also believe such a mandate would disproportionately harm restaurants, small businesses, servers and new or disadvantaged workers.

Feel free to step away now to write me nasty letters. But as you’re considering the appropriate insults, I’ll provide some information about myself: Following my parents’ divorce, I was raised by my mother, who had a 10th grade education and worked as a waitress. I also waitressed for about 10 years, including the seven it took to complete my bachelor’s degree. In addition to numerous server positions, I held literally dozens of minimum wage jobs, including some while I was starting my business. During this time I lived in shared homes, a boarding house and other situations befitting someone whose income did not stretch very far. Being a late bloomer in both the earnings and the marriage departments, I did not have health insurance until I was 37.

In short, I get it. When you can’t afford basic needs, more money is a pretty good solution. I just don’t think the laws currently proposed in St. Paul and elsewhere are the right mechanism. My views come from my own background but also from more than 30 years as an employer operating a small business, and from three decades as a career counselor helping workers move forward.

It’s not easy, but I’ll try to condense my thoughts into ten points that matter to me in this debate.

1. Minimum wage is still minimum wage. Whatever the actual amount, a person earning the least allowable by law is still a minimum wage worker. What is the plan to move this person to the next level?

2. The opportunity to advance matters more. Training and increased responsibility are what lead to mobility and higher lifetime wages. Paying more is not the same as advancing the worker.

3. Minimum wage jobs shouldn’t be “forever”. People who don’t advance from low-level positions would benefit from government training or subsidies. Minimum wage hikes don’t increase opportunities; they just shift the burden for a social issue onto employers.

4. The lowest rungs on the ladder must be preserved. Workers with limited skills, disabilities, felonies, extensive employment gaps, no work experience…employers won’t take a chance on these folks if they can’t control the wage.

5. Small business owners don’t make minimum. Factoring in overhead, payroll and 60-hour workweeks, I rarely crest $15 an hour myself. It’s a bit of a rub to require owners to pay every worker more than they themselves make, regardless of the job being performed.

6. Some jobs are not worth $15 an hour. Arguments focusing on what workers need in order to meet expenses make the assumption that employers are responsible for supplying that amount. But not every job contributes this much value – are we saying they should just be eliminated?

7. This can’t be done city by city. It’s insane to compensate employees according to which city they’re working in that day. A construction laborer could assist at job sites in multiple towns in a single shift. Accounting for each city’s wage rules on that timecard would be a ridiculous burden.

8. Employers pay more than wages. Health insurance, workers’ comp, payroll taxes, training benefits, sick leave, equipment costs…it’s more expensive to have employees now than I can ever remember. When discussing wages, shouldn’t we account for the less tangible expenses as well?

9. Employers aren’t the enemy. So much of this discussion implies that employers want to abuse their workers. We don’t. And those who do are rewarded with high turnover. But most of us are trying to retain our workers under very difficult circumstances. Why not give us a hand instead of constructing one-size-fits-all wage requirements?

10. Workers are not helpless. Everything else aside, I can’t stomach the victim-y feel of this discussion. Worker advocates make employees sound like children who need looking after. My mother may have been uneducated but she was not an idiot. She stood up for herself and she changed jobs when necessary to improve her situation. If others can’t do this, then that’s the real problem we should focus on solving.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul.

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