The year was 1994, or approximately the end of the last ice age. I was 16 years old, worked 20 hours a week and McDonald’s, and minimum wage was $4.25 an hour. Flash forward to 1998. I was 20, worked about 16 hours a week as a student dispatcher, and made $5.15 an hour. Jump two years into the future. I was 22, worked 40 hours a week as a first year teacher and made $15.38 an hour. Climb into the Way Back Machine for one more ride to 2008. I was 30 years old, with an undergraduate degree and an MBA, working for Uncle Sam, and making a multiple of $15 an hour.
So what’s my point? Nothing much other than giving you a little background and assuring you that when I say working in fast food and making minimum wage sucks, that it’s a situation I know a little something about. It sucks a lot. As someone who cleaned grease traps, unloaded truckloads of frozen foods, and filtered the fryers, I’m uniquely postured to say that with a degree of authority. Although the job sucks, I can’t bring myself to see that it sucks badly enough to justify paying basically the same wage I made as a first year teacher. After all, that job sucks for a whole different list of reasons… and not just that, it requires a 4-year degree, testing, certification, and a relatively clean criminal background check. Yes, dare I say it, teaching is more important work than flipping burgers and the compensation should be commensurate with that.
There is nothing in my experience of working minimum wage jobs that tells me anyone should make $15 an hour based on the work’s level of difficulty. Of course level of difficulty really isn’t the argument. In all the cases I’ve heard, the reason is simply that they should make $15 an hour because they need more money. I hear ya, brothers and sisters. I need more money too. But you see, I never “just” worked my part time minimum wage job and expected it to be enough to get by. I cut grass in the summers and shoveled snow in the winters. I collected aluminum cans and cashed them in for pennies. That was all side work on top being a pretty successful full time student and on top of my part time job. Even now that I’m outside that $15 an hour range, I’m not above picking up cans from the side of the road, or taking on an occasional side job, or writing a damned book about my experiences and selling it online.
Let’s be brutally honest, there aren’t many of us who are working as hard as our grandparents did. I’ve never come out of deep mine after eight hours underground coated in coal dust. My young life wasn’t put on hold to take four years off to go liberate Europe. I’m not up at 4AM to milk the cows. I’ll bet most of the fast food workers who think they need $15 an hour aren’t any of these things either. And for the record, I’m not saying they should be doing those things. All I’m saying is that what I really want to see is what they’re doing to improve their employment options beyond holding up a sign and demanding more money. Not everyone needs to go to college and get a job wearing a tie, but if you’re strolling around waiting for your CEO to pay you more just because you think it’s what you deserve, well, I hope you’re dressed warm because you’re in for a long wait.
Maybe you can’t put a value on a human life, but the market can damned sure put a value on the work we do with the life we’re given. It’s up to each of us to maximize what our labor is worth… and if you personally find it worth $15 an hour, I’d recommend you set your sights a little higher than grill jockey at the local greasy spoon.