Raising the minimum wage is supported by the majority of Americans, but it seems that $15 is just too much for some to handle.
That’s the hourly rate fast food workers in New York secured last week for all jobs in their industry. The new minimum, which is set to go into effect statewide in 2021, will be tied for the highest in the world with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, reported the Guardian. And as fast food workers in New York celebrate the victory, others in major cities across the country have taken to protesting in hopes of getting similar results.
But the New York decision has been met with backlash, and not just from the usual suspects like CEOs and conservative politicians, but from people who essentially say "$15 is just too damn high for me to be cool with." In a poll taken earlier this year in Washington and Oregon, most people supported raising the minimum wage—but 57% opposed raising it as high as $15.
Take this quote, from a friendly Facebook exchange within my circle over the weekend:
These people think it's okay to make just as much as a doctor going through residency (I know one who makes $10 an hour) who work over 60 hours a week…oh wait and who have 8+ years of higher education under their belt and are approximately $200,000 in debt as a result of that education. GIVE. ME. A. BREAK!
It's not hard to see why some people might have that initial reaction. A fast food worker might not have even graduated high school. In fact, about one in three fast food workers were of high school age, found a 2013 study.
Personally, I was about three years out of school before I hit that $15 hourly mark. Which is to say: a lot of us might understand that visceral reaction to a $15 minimum wage.
But then there's this viral Facebook post from Jens Rushing, a paramedic who defends the move even though he only make $15 an hour for his job which presumably saves lives and costs a lot of time and effort to get into.
The key phrasing in his defense of the new minimum being: "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." The post has, as of now, been shared nearly 4,000 times, and most of the feedback on it is positive.
Many New York fast food workers currently make $8.75, today's minimum wage for the state. Up to 180,000 families stand to be lifted out of poverty or near poverty thanks to the new $15 minimum, estimates Working Families, a minimum wage advocacy group, which dismisses concerns that the shift will only help some at the greater expense of the economy.
The win in New York is unequivocally being called a success story for the power of labor. Progressive labor policy in this country has long been stifled out of Red Scare and a lingering Cold War that has never left our political discourse, even over 20 years after that fight was officially over.
With the New York decision, however, that may be changing before our eyes, as the nation starts having a serious conversation that has long been taboo.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the increasingly popular Democratic presidential hopeful and self-declared socialist, submitted a bill last week calling for a $15 minimum wage set at a federal level. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic forerunner, has already endorsed the $15 minimum for her home state of New York.
Economists are also predictably weighing in. In a piece titled "What Will A $15 Minimum Wage Do To New York State? Ask The Greeks," Panos Mourdoukoutas, a Greek economist weighs in on how he says a hike in minimum wage in that country brought about the fiscal meltdown that has played out there over recent months.
"Greece’s minimum wage rose from slightly below 600 euros in 2000 to close to 900 euros by 2011, according to Eurostat. That’s a 50% increase," he wrote. Pressure from labor unions turned demands into law, he says, and "that's how labor compensation turned into an entitlement," which brought about the crisis, he suggests.
Another major criticism of New York's new minimum is that it applies to all of New York state, including some "economically haggard rust belt towns and relatively poor cities," Slate columnist Jordan Weissman points out. In a city like Buffalo, Ny., the $15 hourly minimum wage for fast food workers will sit just below the median income of that city, which was $16.71 in 2014.
That flipping burgers can practically get you into the median income bracket is good thing to some. For others, it's exactly the reason that engineers in communist Cuba are often known to drive taxi-cabs: it's easier, and the pay is even better than the highly valued but often undercompensated work that engineers around the world do all the time.
So, the feeling goes, why would anyone aspire to do more when you can live a median life flipping burger?
In Seattle, a city that passed a $15 minimum last year, another conservatives' nightmare has recently been playing out. An employee of Full Life Care, a nursing nonprofit, told a local radio station that some of its workers have been asking for fewer hours to keep their income down, in hopes of staying on government programs like food stamps and rent assistance.
When submitting a bill that would change the federal minimum wage to $15 last week, Sen. Sanders said: “In the year 2015, a job must lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it." That makes cases like what is reportedly happening in Seattle so troubling and necessary of a broad, inclusive conversation. Doubling Wal-Mart employees' hourly pay would do exactly zero good for society if those employees asked to have their hours cut in half in hopes of keeping their government benefits.
"The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised to a living wage," Sanders said. That's true. And now that the $15 minimum wage movement has scored a victory in the biggest city in the nation, maybe we can start to construct a meaningful dialogue about what the hell a "living wage" actually means.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.