No One’s Making You Work There

A bit ago, McDonalds posted a sample budget showing that one could survive financially on what they pay. They were smart enough to include the fact that you’d need a second job to make all your bills but, it could be done. Or could it?

Shortly after publication, several McDonald’s employees posted their actual expenses, demonstrating that McDonalds was being unrealistic in its calculations. And now the company’s blunder could be used as ammunition to increase the minimum wage. Why just today, on my ride into work, I saw at least forty or so of what I presumed to be, McDonald’s employees and their supporters in the parking lot of the restaurant located at the 8 Mile / Lahser streets. They were protesting something but I couldn’t make it out from my short stop at the red light. But they were carrying red signs with D15 written on them. I made a mental note to check it out later. So later came and it refers to the D15 Campaign. The goal is to increase the minimum wage to $15.00 a hour.

The D15 campaign is Detroit based but probably spreading outside 8 Mile as I write this. It doesn’t surprise me. Detroit is teetering over the plank right now with hungry sharks waiting for it to hit the water. Last week, the once and mighty D-Town became the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy, only to be put on hold seconds later (“seconds” used in government time). It’s not just the city mismanagement. Private companies haven’t faired much better. In 2008, the federal government had to bail out General Motors and Chrysler. Private home owners are still hurting from the real estate crash of that same year. And commercial property owners have seen slumps in their own investments.

Detroit is dying. I had to finally admit this circa the year 2000. A friend of mine came in from Seattle (he used to live here). He asked, “So what’s to do around here now?” I could only rattle off a handful of the places we used to go. Let me stress, used to go. Since we’d been hanging around, many of them had dried up. And there was nothing left to take him to. Nothing for our taste, anyhow. We ended up at City Club which has been an underground pit since… When he asked what there was new happening, my answer was, “You have to know where to go. Know people who know, that is.” Sad answer. Sad that every good venue was something so small that it’s close to secret. We have no Studio 54. The last great attempt at a socialite’s paradise in Detroit was SPACE. Right next to the ever fantastic St. Andrews Hall, SPACE was three floors of techno thrills featuring a drag queen stage show, midgets on Velcro walls and the star attraction – Brutal Betty, a three-hundred-pound, sixty-year-old dominatrix.

Gone. All of it closed and boarded up. The once and mighty Packard Plant, closed. Turned into a wasteland which has now become a sort of Bartertown, home to squatters, a community of its own rules. And each Detroit zip code has its share of entire street blocks with homes being reclaimed by nature. Trees growing through once lovely kitchens and living rooms.

So there’s no businesses moving into Detroit (although a Whole Foods recently went up). But the majority of businesses in and around the immediate Detroit zip codes are restaurants, liquour stores, churches (once private properties now declared “church” to avoid taxes), hair salons and barbershops and gas stations. And the only retail stores are small business stores, catering to speciality items. And then there’s the fact that everyone seems to be working landscaping and construction.

All the above suggests that I’d be in favor of a $15.00 minimum wage. How is anyone living here going to survive on $7.40 an hour? Well the picture I painted looks bad. And I suppose if you choose to stay in it, it is bad.

When I was a teen, entering the working world, my first job was a sub-sandwich cook. I knew, KNEW, that this was not a career. All through college, almost to my senior year, I worked in food service. And I knew, KNEW, each place was not my career. The owner of the last restaurant I worked at once complained to me over the bun toaster that he couldn’t keep any help. They’d hire in and be gone in a month. Or turn out to be unreliable. I felt the need to be honest and advise him that no one, NO ONE, currently working in his place of business was there for the long haul. He never raised an objection to that. And he never raised anyone’s pay to keep them. He knew and I knew that it was true.

Jobs requiring little skill get paid little money. It’s that simple. It’s why busing tables, although busy work, is not educated work. Let me be clear and get ahead of the hate mail. I do value such work. Where would we be without the people who pick apples, stock the grocery shelves, turn the sign on the road from STOP to SLOW in a construction zone? But the fact remains that any able bodied adult can do this. And because of that, despite it’s importance, if you don’t want to do it, someone else will. We don’t have an immigration problem because of free welfare. We have a lot of unskilled jobs open. We need someone to work the fields, hammer nails and clean out homes. Those crossing over the Mexican border aren’t collecting checks. They’re working and earning money; albeit in cash, but working.

We may need more people to work in a grocery store than we need heart specialists in any one area. But which field requires more education, more time in study, more missed weekend parties and more debt (emotionally and financially)? One could argue that the value of food and clothing is more important than a heart specialist. Everyone must eat and be clothed, daily; whereas, a heart specialist will only be needed by a few (compared to the entire population of the area serviced). And the need for a heart specialist is usually later in life but the need for food and clothing begins right out of the womb. But again, any able bodied adult can be in food service. Or in retail. Remember it wasn’t until the 1980s or so when a college degree became important as more specialized, more knowledgeable people were needed for the growth in medicine, technology, etc. It’s the architect who makes more money designing the sewer system than the person digging the hole.

It comes down to supply and demand. There are less skilled workers then unskilled. And when there’s less of something with a great demand, the price goes up. In the converse, if there’s five-hundred people applying for ten jobs at McDonalds, well…do the math.

So here’s the thing: If unskilled labor starts earning $15.00 an hour, an artificial upset will take out the economy. Yes, the Big Mac may only end up costing an extra sixty-five-cents afterwards. But the bigger impact is that skilled labor will find itself undervalued. If an able bodied eighteen-year-old with no high school diploma can get up and earn $15.00 an hour, why should anyone go into $45,000.00 in debt to pursue a degree where their entry level pay will be the same? Raising the minimum wage just encourages otherwise smart, goal-minded people not to bother. See: Soviet Union.

If the minimum wage is raised, employers will just hire less. An employer who is willing to hire twenty might throttle back, make some cuts and hire only thirteen. And if in the food industry, do we really want to see an employer cut, say, the quality of the food? We’re already seeing employers looking to reduce the number of employees and reduce their hours to avoid the Obamacare requirement.

The bottom line is…you, marching in the McDonalds parking lot with your D15 sign, you don’t have to work there. You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to make the food industry your career. However, if you do want to, may I suggest getting into a vocational school for culinary arts. Then make it as a big-time chef – respectable. You can work at McDonalds if you want but don’t complain about the wages. The business model is set up to be a dog and you’re trying to make it a peacock. There will always be jobs that pay less than what some think they should be paid. Get that. Writers, actors, musicians, philosophers, historians…short of a college professor placement or breaking it “in the industry”, it’s low pay. Know the risks when you enter.

Now by all means, everyone should feel free to negotiate a wage with their employer. Who knows, maybe this budget fudge will cause McDonalds to bump eveyone up to a starting wage of $9.00 an hour. But maybe they won’t. But you’re never going to get $15.00. So if you aren’t getting what you want, move on. If you truly want a decent paycheck, continue your education. Take on student loans if need be, apply for grants, ask for assistance from community charities. But do this with caution. If it’s money you want, get into a high paying field. Whatever you do, do NOT take on heavy college debt studying Ancient China and expect a huge payoff. And while you’re studying for bigger, better things, work at McDonalds. I believe that’s what those jobs are for. They teach you about showing up, staying the clock, working with others, getting orders out in a timely manner and running a business. So there is value above the money you receive.

Note that at least you’re paid for your time at McDonalds. Should you pursue a college degree, you’ll probably be required to work an intership or practicum or residency. And. Not. Get. Paid. This is on the job training where you rarely get paid, but you’re earning credits towards your degree. Because the point is to move on. Think of your minimum wage job as a jumping off point. Not a career move.

Learn and move on. Take your McDonald’s pay as a step towards something bigger because, in the end, hardly anyone turns it into a career.

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