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Issue of the Week
 
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Minimum Wage Warrior

by Meg Murphy

26 June 00

It's a Sunday night at a McDonald's on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, and Dorian Davis is watching his crew: Get the customers in and out, wrap those burgers and fries, load Big Macs onto that conveyer belt for the drive-through. Faster!

Davis is a sweet-faced young man of 17, but he knows what it takes to get ahead. McDonald's didn't promote him from his start pay of $5.15 an hour to his current $5.70 for nothing.

"It's not as easy as it looks working at McDonald's," said Davis, a recent graduate of Queens Vocational High School. Weekends evenings can bring in a solid rush of customers from noon until nine at night, requiring a staff of over a dozen crew members just to keep pace.

Tonight the cheery purple and blue tables are filled with families, teenagers and a few couples, each of whom have ordered at least three food items apiece. Davis glances around the restaurant, apprehensively eyeing a coughing toddler who is taking a reckless swig from his Grimace Styrofoam cup. The child starts coughing, and Davis watches until the mother has set things straight with a few slaps on the back. The demands on a McDonald's manager are constant.

"This is a good job when you're still at home with Mommy," Davis said with a self-deprecating laugh. He works five or six days a week and refers to his earnings as "good for pocket change."

But it is a job that Davis approaches with pride. He straightens his McDonald's tie, one of three such corporate gifts, and smoothes out the creases in his navy blue and white-striped McDonald's shirt. "People think it's a free ride here, but it's not. They think it's McDonald's and not a real job. Their first busy day cracks them, and then they see what it means to work at McDonald's."

Despite the low pay, Davis says workers appreciate what he calls "a family atmosphere" at McDonald's. He says it can help the crew deal with the stress of indecisive customers and long hours, and, oddly enough, has even helped them joke off their fear of death on the job. At this time last June, the restaurant was one of five fast food places in Queens robbed by a former fast-food employee named John Taylor. No one was harmed. That's why Davis says employees were unnerved a few weeks ago when they heard the same man, along with friend Craig Godineaux, allegedly killed five employees at a Wendy's on Main Street in Flushing. The robbers forced seven employees into the basement freezer, forced plastic bags over their heads, and shot them execution-style. It was the worst mass shooting in New York City since 1995.

"It really weirded us out around here. People were talking about it. I think everyone felt like, •Hey, that could have been us,'" said Davis. He was relieved when employees began trading jokes to take the edge off, and he says that now all seems well. "It's good. They can focus on the job."

An increase to the minimum wage, says Davis, would go a long way in acknowledging the hard work that people in the fast food industry do every day. At his restaurant, teenagers make up the majority of the staff of about 40 workers. Davis doesn't know how workers who don't live at home manage to pay their rent, although he says the older workers have earned promotions to salaries over minimum wage. "People here work hard. It takes focus and discipline. It takes something to make it at McDonald's."

Raising The Minimum Wage

by Jerome Chou

26 June 00

Around the country, legislators have recognized that, despite a strong economy, many people who work as sales clerks and filing clerks, counter help and kitchen help, secretaries, receptionists and messengers³people, in other words, who work for minimum wage³have fallen behind. The minimum wage today is worth about one-third less than it was worth in 1970.

In response, Congress raised the minimum wage nationwide in 1996 from $4.25 to its current level of $5.15, and has proposed raising it another dollar over the next few years.

Now the Working Families Party, the two-year-old labor-community political party in New York, is pushing a bill to increase the state minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.75, which would be the highest rate in the country. The bill also requires that if the statewide average salary goes up (as it has in recent years) the State will raise the minimum wage again.

"The minimum wage is allowing the city to become more divided between rich and poor; that's a division along race lines," said William Stafford, a professor of urban planning and public policy at New York University, who studied how minimum wage earners break down according to race, and who supports the increase.

Conservative policy analysts who oppose an increase also frame their arguments in terms of what's best for poor and working class New Yorkers, claiming that businesses forced to pay a higher minimum wage will lay people off and hire only the most skilled, trained workers, making it even tougher for other job-seekers to find employment. Business owners, even ones who pay much more than the minimum wage, are worried that their employees will demand raises as well. "Small business doesn't operate in a vacuum," says Mark Alesse, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, an association of small businesses. "If you increase costs in one place, you force an equal and opposite reaction: higher prices or fewer jobs."

QUICK STATS

Current minimum wageAnnual Salary
$5.15$10,712
$6.75$14,040

Currently ten states and Washington, D.C. have minimum wages higher that the federal level, including California ($5.75), Connecticut ($6.15), Washington ($6.50, indexed to inflation), and Massachusetts ($6.75 beginning on January 1, 2001)

In 1997, 2.4% of New York State's workers (about 200,000 out of a state workforce of about 8.2 million) earned the minimum wage. Increasing the minimum wage to $6.75, however, would affect almost 880,000 workers who currently make less than that.

BATTLE OF THE EPIs

Economic Policy Institute - A packed "Issue Guide" with Frequently Asked Questions, Facts at a Glance, charts, and essays in support of a higher minimum wage. In their Viewpoints section, see Thomas Michl's "Low-wage Workers Deserve Pay Raise" for information on New York's living wage campaign.

Employment Policies Institute - At the other end of the ideological spectrum, this conservative think tank (which the Economic Policy Institute claims has ties to the restaurant industry) offers its own set of facts and figures to denounce any increases in the minimum wage.

OP-ED WARS

Pro: James Parrot - Deputy Director and Chief Economist of Fiscal Policy Institute

Con: Doug Bandow - Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute

Living Wage Campaigns - Across the country, cities and counties have passed "living wage" ordinances, that set salaries higher than the state minimum wage. This site, maintained by the community organization ACORN, surveys existing living wage legislation nationwide. In Rockland County the Working Families Party is pushing for an ordinance that would require companies doing business with the County to pay their employees $8.25/hour this year and $9 by 2002.

Hillary Clinton has written on the need for a raise in the minimujm wage, and Rick Lazio has also supported a raise in the minimum wage, as part of a bill he introduced called the Small Business Tax Fairness Act.

Visit the IOTW Archives!

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