Lately, there has been an outcry from fast food workers across the land and into our local areas concerning the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour. With the many complaints piling up against the quite successful fast food companies, most of us can feel a compassion for those workers and are not surprised. It just doesn't seem right that if the minimum wage had really kept pace with inflation, the minimum wage would be well over $10 an hour. Another fact is that if it had kept pace with just average labor wages, it would be close to $17 an hour.
I sort of get a kick out of the government's monthly report on new jobs as there is always a lot of crowing as to how many jobs were created by our government. However, we never hear of what types of jobs were created. Those jobs, more likely than not, are simply fast-food type jobs that fall into the minimum wage category. Those jobs can never house, feed or clothe a family, unless both parents work two fast food jobs apiece. What about the high price of just heating alone? The government can crow, but in reality, sad but true, those new jobs also are usually part time and hardly ever offer any benefits.
As I usually do, I try to inject a bit of history into these columns, and again I will try to do that. Congress instituted the minimum wage in 1938 as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act or FLSA. The first minimum wage stood at 25 cents an hour. Wow, could we live on that today? The last minimum wage increase occurred in 2007. That's when Congress raised the rates in steps from $5.15 an hour that year to $7.25 an hour in July 2009. The District of Columbia and 19 states have established local minimum wages higher than the federal rate. Currently, the highest minimum rate in the country is Washington state at $9.19 an hour. The average minimum wage in our country, including higher state rates, stands at $7.57 an hour.
Did you know that there are fewer people earning minimum wages than you may think? Approximately 3.7 million workers reported making a minimum wage or close to 3 percent of all workers in the U.S. Of course, those workers have to include a lot of teenagers who are still in school. About half of those are between the ages of 16 and 24. The rest are 24 and older. One important factor is that minimum wage does give these workers somewhat of an experience and also teaches them the bare essentials in job skills before they move on to better jobs. They will, in some cases, to be able to receive food stamps and other government benefits. Some members of Congress are pushing for at least $10 an hour minimum wage. The president is pushing for $9 an hour with a statement that no one working full time should live in poverty. Will they get that raise?
At this time, there are many fast food workers who are fighting back through walkouts and strikes throughout our country. This past recession and the slow, slow recovery have certainly added to the problem. Could there even be boycotts in the fast food industry? Will those fed-up workers try to organize and keep fighting for bigger pay checks and benefits?
The fast food owners are currently very successful and would like to keep wages just where they are. There are many pros and cons on this debate. Not everyone has a college degree or is able to get high paying industrial jobs as the job market is shrinking and / or moving to other countries. For some, all that is left are fast food service jobs with low pay, which is not part of the American dream.
Whited is a Tribune Chronicle columnist.