The benefit of working in a low wage job is exposure to lives I wouldn’t otherwise know exist.
Every work day someone’s car has been repossessed, an abusive spouse called an associate at work, or someone lost their apartment with no ability to pay for a new one.
This a part of society people don’t see much unless one is living it. Government is not involved unless a trip to the courthouse or prison is part of the package.
During my transportation career I spent more than my share of time on the South Side of Chicago. Some folks decided to break into a trailer dropped in a neighborhood and attempted to take a refrigerator. The refrigerators were large and awkward to handle, and the Chicago police stopped the theft and pursued the would-be thieves through the neighborhood. A call from our corporate staff in Cedar Rapids resulted in my spending most of a day in arraignment court. The time there was life-changing. I knew Chicago experienced a lot of crime, but was in no way prepared for the endless procession of victims and their aggressors.
When our case came up on the docket, the prosecutor began by pointing at me, saying “a representative of the company” was present at the arraignment. If I hadn’t been there, the charges would have been dropped. While enjoying the narratives of the culprit chase and questioning about their identification the night of the crime, I had other responsibilities to pursue, such as finding drivers who would comply with company policy and park their trailers at our nearby secure terminal across the Indiana line.
I worked three months for a subcontractor of a subcontractor to the Whirlpool Corporation in North Liberty the spring of 2013. It was hard work and I found something better. There was constant employee turnover and I got to meet and spend breaks with a lot of transients during my tenure. There were no permanent employees of the temp service who wrote my paycheck, not even in our Cedar Rapids office.
A group from Chicago had set up shop off Penn Street in North Liberty, renting an apartment where friends, relatives and neighbors from Chicago stayed and rotated through. They had heard of job opportunities and cheap living in the Cedar Rapids – Iowa City Corridor and some of them worked at the temp service I did trying to find a permanent arrangement in Cedar Rapids. My informant was someone who participated in this operation. In addition to the work building kits for Whirlpool, he was a low-level loan shark and two-bit hustler trying to get ahead. He didn’t last long at the plant.
I started referring to the “Chicago contingent” with these folks specifically in mind. Unbeknownst to me my experience and others like it became the stuff of urban legends. So much so that Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker addressed it in a presentation last week to Cedar Rapids’ First Presbyterian Church, titled, Dispelling the Myth of Chicago “Trouble-Makers.” The YouTube video is an hour long and Walker does a great job framing the issues.
As Walker explains, the phrase “Chicago trouble-makers” is dog-whistle for racism. Since my experience with the Chicago contingent was born out of personal experience, I hadn’t thought of it that way. The fellow employees at the temp service were trying to get ahead, and I don’t blame them for wanting to get out of Chicago. I didn’t know many of them as well as my informant, and it’s likely some of them had a recent criminal background, based on conversations in the break area. What I called their “operation” could not help but be noticed by others and civic attitudes toward it followed.
Our politics cultivates urban myths like the “Chicago trouble-makers” as a primary function. We’ve become so disconnected from our neighbors that rumor and innuendo displace human interaction and its role in society. My solution is to write about what I know from personal experience and challenge my own perspective as much as that’s possible. Once one engages in society it is possible to effect change. In fact, that may be the only way to do it.
What of it, readers may ask. People go shopping all the time and some say our economy is predicated on consumers shopping.
That may be, however, in an hour and 12 minutes I spent 18 percent of our monthly budget on the stuff of living. It was a big deal.
The reason for the shopping trip was I took this week off from the home, farm and auto supply store to work on our garden. I usually dovetail shopping with trips to work. Garden time generated needs like a new 9-pattern spray nozzle to replace the one that began leaking, a dozen five-foot, light gauge fence posts for the garden, 100 feet of 4-foot chicken wire netting, and 50 feet of four-foot, 14 gauge, 2 x 4 welded wire fencing to make some additional tomato cages.
While there, I bought a new Stihl FS 56 R C-E loop handle trimmer. When the old, battery-powered Black and Decker trimmer broke I debated whether or not to acquire a gasoline or battery powered replacement. Two decision points. Even with two batteries the Black and Decker couldn’t trim the whole yard. Where the electricity to charge the trimmer batteries comes from is problematic.
We source electricity from the Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative and their generation partner CIPCO. More than two-thirds of electricity we use is generated by undesirable means: coal and nuclear. While the percentage of wind and solar CIPCO used increased in recent years, the Duane Arnold nuclear plant is a sore spot. The mix will change when the nuclear reactors go off line in the near future. I chose the most fuel-efficient of the Stihl line of household trimmers and expect to burn about two gallons of gasoline per season.
I stuck to my shopping lists even when I deleted the warehouse club list from my mobile device before arriving there. My mission was to find fruit. The selection of organically grown was very limited. Basically apples and bananas which both came at a premium price. I added a Dole pineapple on sale for $1.99 and a four-pound clam shell of grapes. The grapes weren’t the best — imported from Chile and treated — I won’t make that mistake again.
Finally I stopped at a large chain drug store on the way home. I go there three or four times a year to pick up personal hygiene items. The cost of razor blades has me thinking about letting my beard grow.
To acknowledge participation in consumer culture is essential. When I consider a history of my life, for good or ill, shopping has been part of it and an influence. When Father insisted on supporting César Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott, we connected to the struggles of people who produce our food and learned a lesson about being a union family. That a gallon of milk cost $1.89 yesterday speaks volumes to the plight of family dairy farmers. That I get a discount for being employed at the home, farm and auto supply store is part of the reason I linger on into retirement.
This was my first big shopping trip of the year and may be the only one. It’s a small but important part of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.
A relationship with food in American society is complicated.
Some don’t have enough. Others are awash in calories. We each have a human need for nourishment and the ways we go about meeting it are as different as the families which engendered us.
A favorite childhood memory is when Mother went to work in the school cafeteria after the Catholic Church built a new grade school near our home. With other women like her, she took a list of ingredients based partly on government programs (including lots of cheese) and partly on a limited budget, and made meals that included such dishes as porcupine meatballs (hamburger and rice) and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Father worked at the meat packing plant which had an employee butcher shop where he could buy beef, pork and meat products at a discount, and did. The idea of stretching hamburger by mixing it with cooked rice was a novelty in our household and eventually we implored Mother to make porcupine meatballs for us at home, just like the ones at school. She did.
This story of external culinary practices coming into our home is essential to understanding the rise of a diverse diet in American society. We see things out there, they look good, and we want them. Most people, including low-wage workers, have or find the means to get them.
Many books, careers and lives have been based on food in society. We are an individualized rather than generalized culture with regard to food acquisition, preparation and consumption. To a large extent, the rise of the modern mega grocery store has shaped our eating habits in ways no one would have expected. Much ink has been spilled about that and I’m less interested in regurgitating my slice of it.
What I do know is local food farmers work hard for the sparse income they garner. All farmers do. The local food movement of which they are a part is based on the hope more people will bring locally produced, raw ingredients produced in a sustainable manner into their kitchens, ice boxes and pantries. Enough people do for a small group of farmers to make a living.
In many ways the increased interest in local food is the same type of behavior that took place in our home in the 1960s. We experience surprise when our CSA share includes Broccoli Raab, Koji or Bok Choy. We learn how to eat and cook them and want more. It’s not that our home nourishment plan is boring. We want and enjoy the experience of creation as it relates to cooking and eating. We want that experience to be personal and shared with family. That is very American.
I concede promotion of local food is a form of consumerism no different from a tomato catsup purveyor who spends dollars on an advertising campaign to enhance sales. The same behavioral forces are at work. I’m okay with that.
Just so you know, I’m not bewitched by the allure of eating a kale salad, at least not yet. Suffice it to say the diversity and behavior regarding food in our household with its kitchen garden, farm sourcing and grocery shopping has some unique qualities that may not be of interest to the authors of the Michelin Guide, but make our lives a little better. That too is very American. That’s part of who I am, who we Americans all are.
One of my work buddies is a mechanic and Vietnam veteran. He was a mechanic during the war although it’s his brother who now operates an auto shop in the county seat. He is active in the American Legion and has a reputation as a curmudgeon. I find myself pointing out I’m older than he is, although I defer to him because of his veteran status. He drives a vehicle similar to my 1997 Subaru.
Transportation is important when working for low wages. The idea of buying a new car — straight from the dealer — is a fantasy reserved for immediately after buying a winning lottery ticket or hitting it big on Bitcoin futures speculation. The chances of doing any of them are minuscule. When someone gets a new car it means nicer and newer than the previous one. My colleagues at the home, farm and auto supply store favor used cars that work and one or another of our collective vehicles is always acting up. We help each other with rides, loaner cars and jump starts without questioning it.
Essential to life with an old car is knowing a good mechanic, “good” being the hard part. Finding one means slogging through abundant folklore, experiences and stories of wrench turners to identify someone gifted at diagnosis with an approach that produces excellent results inexpensively. Being a good mechanic includes willingness to work on an old car, knowledge about the model, and doing what’s needed to keep it running and nothing more.
Acknowledging the importance of diagnosing automotive problems, three groups of mechanics took medical-sounding names for their automotive businesses in the small city near where I live. There’s an auto clinic, auto medics, and an ag clinic. Proper diagnoses are important and good mechanics are possessed of the knowledge, resources and skills to make them. I don’t normally use my curmudgeonly Vietnam veteran friend as my mechanic, even though he would likely work on my car for free.
A while back my Subaru began intermittently overheating. I took it to my mechanic and after several diagnostic attempts we figured a leaking head gasket caused the problem. We weren’t sure, but were sure enough to give it a try. If a dealer were to replace a head gasket in my car, the book calls for pulling the engine because of the configuration of the engine compartment. My mechanic saved me 10 hours labor by replacing the head gasket with the engine in the chassis. He understood ten hours labor made a big difference in our budget.
Recently the electrical system went on the fritz and I suspected the battery was going bad.
Troubleshooting began by asking people I know. My Vietnam veteran friend checked the battery and results of the computerized test he ran showed it to be okay. It wasn’t, but I took his word it was and tried charging the car each night in the garage. The issue did not resolve and repeated charging may have made the battery worse.
I called my regular mechanic, whose schedule was packed, and got an appointment for the following week. When my spouse was not working I used her car to get to work. When I used mine, it continued to lose a charge after four hours in the parking lot until it would not re-start immediately after parking it for the day. It was frustrating.
My colleagues at the home, farm and auto supply store stepped up with five jump starts during the period. On my second break I’d pore over the schedule to see whose shift ended the same time as mine and ask a co-worker for a jump. The first person I asked always jumped me: we all understand cars that have been in service for a while have issues. I was cautious about asking the same person more than once for fear of wearing out the welcome.
Car problems are an existential annoyance. They are also less important than maintaining relationships, including with family, co-workers and neighbors. We are stronger together and will need strength for the coming years. That and a good mechanic.
Financial inequality is impacting society by making men protectors of what limited resources each family has.
I know few people who are increasing their wealth in the post-Reagan era. The rich get richer and the rest of us pay for it as dollars systematically, relentlessly find their way to the richest one percent of the population. Families struggle to get a share of societal wealth and if they do, feel privileged enough to say, “I’ve got mine.”
The struggle to provide for a family is getting harder with the transformation of American business to globalization, government efforts to eliminate regulations, and the current administration’s tampering with healthcare, defense, foreign policy, energy, education, immigration and more.
The impact of financial inequality on the role of men in society has been to make it more difficult for them to provide for their families. That said, I don’t know many families where a male is the sole provider. Women began moving to the paid work force in large numbers decades ago. The idea women wouldn’t seek paid work is a social legacy of male dominance. The male narrative lacks proper consideration for the value of work by women. That seems obvious in workplaces where women earn a fraction of a dollar men do for the same work, and also in homes where a male provides money and resources for the family and women work unpaid.
Men are challenged to be providers so their role shifted to being protectors of what they have. The rise in gun ownership in the United States is directly related to income inequality and the diminished role of men as providers. Let’s talk about that.
Some of my friends and acquaintances are women who carry handguns.
It’s no big deal. The banal and ubiquitous presence of guns is part of living in the United States.
I’m not worried about getting shot over lunch or at an event. I also don’t feel any more secure knowing she has a handgun in her purse. It used to be a bit jarring to see weapons unexpectedly in everyday places. Not any more. I’m confident in studies that show women are not the main problem with gun violence, it’s the men.
Data shows gun violence is disproportionately a male problem. Of the 91 mass shootings in which four or more victims died since 1982, only three were committed by women, according to a database from the liberal-leaning news outlet Mother Jones. Men also accounted for 86% of gun deaths in the United States, according to an analysis by the non-partisan non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation.
Fast forward to Dastagir’s conclusion that to understand gun violence we must examine the cultural forces that equate being a man with violence. Read her information-packed article here.
What is it to be a man? It’s no secret having a Y chromosome is less important than the culture in which boys are nurtured to adulthood. There remains a significant, lingering perception that procreation is part of being a man even though wombs are more important than sperm. Only primitives continue to believe having a large family is a sign of manhood. At the same time male sexual dominance often trumps a woman’s right to choose. We read news daily about sexual predators, soldiers raping villagers, and widespread sexual harassment. Even so, something more powerful than traditional views about the role of men in procreation is at work.
After my first year in college (1971) I went home for the summer. I met with a number of male friends from high school and we each had been able to apply for work at manufacturing plants in the Quad Cities and find a summer job. Some literally went from business to business until they found a job and everyone who wanted one got one. It was easy. That changed.
The jobs environment has gotten very scrappy in Iowa and well-paid jobs with benefits are difficult to find and secure. Such jobs exist, however, the rise of professional human resources consultants has businesses seeking employees who meet very specific “profiles.” Don’t meet the profile or offer something unique to the position? Applicants will politely be sent on their way. If an applicant is lucky enough to be hired, human resource consultants have structured pay and benefits to meet the company’s minimum needs more than the needs of employees. Under the guise of taking inefficiencies out of business operations well-paid jobs with benefits are hard to get for almost anyone. It is worse with large companies who have the capitalization and scale to hire human resources consulting firms.
The transformation from manufacturing jobs to service jobs has not gone well from the standpoint of men seeking work. Retail, lawn care, janitorial, restaurant, banking, accounting, health care, sales, and other low-skill level employment performs necessary work in the economy. Such jobs are far from adequately compensated. Our education system increasingly fails to prepare students for jobs in a service economy. I’m not talking about adding a STEM curriculum in K-12 classrooms, but simple things like how to make a decision to start a business, work for a service company, or get a government job. Provider males are increasingly on their own when it comes to crafting a career, if that’s even possible in the 21st Century. Most I know get by, just barely.
In a society of income inequality, limited resources, women’s rights, and unsatisfactory job options, men get stymied in traditional roles of procreation and providing. They turn to protecting what they have, and that often includes buying guns. It is a predictable reaction in a society with a legacy of male dominance with no outlet.
A focus on resolving gun violence in the United States without considering the changing role of men in society isn’t going anywhere.
In this final 2016 post it was easier than last year to outline my writing plans.
The work I do to pay bills and support my writing has been tough mentally and physically. To cope with an aging frame and occasionally distracted mind I have had to focus. That meant planning, and then with discipline, working the plan. 2016 was a mixed bag and I expect to do better in 2017.
I seldom post about my personal life and family — at least directly. That leaves issues I confront every day as grist for the keyboard.
There are four broad, intersecting topics about which I’ll write during the coming year.
Low Wage Work and Working Poor
Not only do I earn low wages in all of my jobs, I meet a lot of people who do too. During the last four years I developed a framework for viewing how people sustain their lives without a big job or high salary. A focus on raising the minimum wage, wage theft or immigration status may be timely but most of what I read misses the mark. Stories fail to recognize the complexity with which low wage workers piece together a life. This subject needs more exposition and readers can expect it here.
Food Cultivation, Processing and Cooking
Living on low wages includes knowledge of how to grow, process and prepare some of our own food. My frequent posts on this topic have been intended to tell a story about how the work gets done. I plan to grow another big garden in 2017 and perform the same seasonal farm work. I sent off a membership form to Practical Farmers of Iowa this morning and expect my experience with that group to contribute to food related writing.
I renewed my membership in Physicians for Social Responsibility. We have a global footprint and as a member I have access to almost everything going on world-wide to abolish one of the gravest threats to human life. The president elect made some startling statements about nuclear weapons this month. The subject should hold interest and perhaps offer an opportunity to get something done toward abolition. The United Nations voted to work toward a new treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. They did so without the support of the United States or any of the other nuclear armed states. In that tension alone there should be a number of posts.
Global Warming and Climate Change
My framework has been membership in the Climate Reality Leadership Corps. Like with Physicians for Social Responsibility we have a global footprint with thousands of Climate Leaders. We have access to the latest information about climate change and its solutions. The key dynamic, however, is how work toward accepting the reality of climate change occurs on a local level. What researchers are finding is skepticism about the science of climate change originates in the personal experience of people where they live. If the weather is very hot and dry they tend to believe in climate change. If it is cold, they tend not to believe. Thing is, climate change and human contributions to it are not a belief system as much as they are facts. Global warming and climate change already affect us whether we believe or doubt.
So that’s the plan. While you are here, click on the tag cloud to find something else to read. I hope you will return to read more in 2017.
Hope regular readers are well tolerating my posts from Blog for Iowa. They are different from what I normally write here, but then none of us is one-dimensional — I hope.
I got off work at the orchard a couple hours early. It’s the beginning of the season and we had plenty of staff to cover customers. The apples coming in are mostly tart and useful for baking, apple sauce and apple butter. We had ten varieties available today.
Had a great conversation with a gent who bought a large bag of Dolgo crabs for crab apple jelly. His recipe was basically this one.
“Don’t squeeze the jelly bag,” he cautioned. “The jelly will go cloudy.”
I wished him good luck as he headed for the sales barn exit.
We get a treat for each shift we work. I ate a Zestar apple. Before leaving I bought a 10-pound box of blue berries and on the way home secured a dozen ears of sweet corn at a roadside stand. Tonight’s dinner will be sweet corn on the cob and fresh tomatoes with blueberry yogurt for dessert.
Plans for the unexpected mid day gap are to mow the lawn, gather the grass clippings, process bell peppers and Roma tomatoes, fix dinner and freeze some of the blueberries. The freezer is already packed, so I hope the peppers and blue berries will fit. I have no idea if everything will get finished.
A storm blew down a pear tree branch. After inspecting the damage I picked the unripe fruit then cut the branch cleanly from the trunk. Once they ripen we’ll have more than enough for fresh and maybe some for pureed pear sauce. The tree is still loaded.
Working three jobs is challenging mentally, physically and every way in between. It’s hard to keep up and a couple of unexpected hours to myself was a welcome surprise.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was written for On Our Own: Sustainability in a Turbulent World in 2013 and has been corrected and updated). The Cumulus radio station in Cedar Rapids was advertising how a person could earn up to $340 per month selling their plasma. It’s enough to make it worth a look to see if plasma sales could fit into our budgetary bottom line. Sounds kind of grim, but people do it all the time.
Plasma is the pale, yellow liquid portion of blood that helps our bodies control bleeding and infection. When one donates plasma, blood is removed and the plasma separated and saved before being returned to our body. We generate more plasma within a couple of days so twice a week donations are usually possible.
Donating takes about an hour and plasma collection centers make it easy with a straight forward, step-by-step process. They explain how payment is loaded on a debit card. It is literally using one’s body as an ATM.
Several self-employed and low-wage earners in my circle use plasma sales to supplement monthly income. Got a toothache? Better schedule some sessions at the plasma center to get cash to pay the dentist. One suspects residents of our nearby college town use the cash for cigarettes, salty snacks, sugary drinks and alcohol, but in any case, plasma sales can be a reliable and steady source of income if one meets the requirements for donating.
Plasma money could be put to good use. For example, it could be used for political donations. That way, when a political telemarketer called, knowing my annual budget, I could say, “Yes. I’ll donate $100, which will take me four plasma sessions.” Politics would literally be based on blood money then.
We could go a step further and say that all financial contributions to politicians had to originate in plasma sales. There would be a natural limit to how much a person could donate, and a restriction could be placed on corporations that said something like, corporations can make political contributions, but such contributions must be paid via the plasma of shareholders, imposing a reasonable and well-defined limit to corporate money spent on political campaigns. I bet corporations would exercise their “free speech” differently under such a rule.
If my modest proposal about political contributions seems a bit edgy, I am pretty sure it would work. Having skin in the game would take on a whole new meaning.
Most Americans are asleep at the wheel of politics, and would not contribute, so there is little danger of a glut of plasma on the market.
If times get tough, I’ll re-visit adding a plasma sales income line to our household operating budget. For now, I’m just glad I don’t have to do it.
People who harp about hourly wages are tedious and mostly fooling themselves. The economic instinct in society should be and is making a decent life from what we have and are given. Wages are a part of that, but there is a lot more.
A person can’t make a decent life based solely on wages.
I’ve read my friends at the Iowa Policy Project on Iowa’s cost of living, wage theft, and minimum wage. I don’t disagree with their analysis of the data sets they chose. My issue is work like theirs serves the political class more than it does regular workers. Useful for policy makers, but not for those working poor.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors recently implemented a policy to raise minimum wage in the county — with caveats — to $10.10 per hour by Jan. 1, 2017 and then index it to the Consumer Price Index for the Midwest Region. I attended a public hearing on the ordinance in Solon, read online comments and news articles on the ordinance and its impact, and importantly, talked with scores of people impacted by the law. The ordinance is a lifeline to some, but has little impact on most working poor because it does not adequately address their central concern — finding a job that pays a living wage.
As a low wage worker, I tell a small part of my story in the following paragraphs. It includes a brief history lesson, corporate interests in consumer pricing of gasoline, work injuries, and the role of total compensation packages.
In 1975, minimum wage was $2.10 per hour. With the proceeds of a full-time, no benefits job at a convenience store, I rented an apartment, bought food, had a telephone, owned a car and lived a reasonable life in my home town. A person could get along on $2.10 per hour, barring personal cataclysm, if just barely.
According to the CPI inflation calculator, the $2.10 I earned in 1975 equates $9.26 in today’s dollars. The exact same job I held in 1975 — convenience store cashier — now pays a going rate of $10 per hour. Minimum wage hasn’t kept up but the market has.
How can a person can build a decent life on low wages? It’s not easy. However, addressing minimum wage is a form of tinkering around the edges. So many analyses of minimum wage fail to consider the corporate system we have in every aspect of our lives. Yes, people have to contend with complex issues involving corporate life. They include health care, insurance, banking, debt, fuel, communications, food security and electricity. People complain about these aspects of life rather than leverage them to their advantage. The one I know most about is fuel pricing.
Gasoline prices were $2.099 per gallon at local outlets this week. Gasoline is the dominant passenger vehicle fuel and buying it has become an accepted part of life that includes transportation as a basic expense.
One of my roles during a transportation and logistics career was to purchase about 25 million gallons of diesel fuel per year for a large trucking firm. I visited refineries, pipeline companies and retailers and came to know how every penny of the price we paid came about. While I bought diesel, the same lessons apply to gasoline — something almost everyone who lives outside public transportation routes has to buy.
When I drove my first car, a Volkswagen Beetle in high school, a couple of bucks would fill it up. During gas wars, the price went as low at $0.27 per gallon. Today, state and federal tax alone is $0.579 per gallon in Iowa. An escalating tax became part of the expense background.
Perhaps the biggest change in gasoline pricing over time has been the move from vertical integration of energy companies to the culture of outsourcing and partnering among varied aspects of the fuel supply chain. This is sometimes called horizontal integration.
When I worked for Amoco Oil Company in Chicago in 1990, the corporation was paid $600 million for its oil fields in Iran. Partly because of political instability — their oil fields were seized during the 1979 Islamic Revolution — partly to divest assets and buy crude oil on the open market. Little did we know at the time, Amoco, a company viewed as a stalwart of great places to work and the ninth largest global corporation, was in the process of disappearing. At one point they did everything from exploration, production, refining, research and retailing. They merged into a foreign corporation.
When we pull up to a gasoline pump at a convenience store, the details of the hydrocarbon supply chain seem very remote. Oil and other hydrocarbons have become fungible commodities, and as such, we tend to deal with the price at the pump. Crude oil and crude oil futures trade on financial markets which provides some price visibility. Invisible are the many people from exploration and drilling, to production and refining, to transportation and delivery, to sales and marketing who get some part of the transaction of filling a passenger car gasoline tank.
Working for low wages reinforces the focus on per gallon price. When gasoline prices go up it’s bad. When they go down, we like it. Set aside the government subsidies, the unrecognized cost of using the atmosphere as an open sewer for emissions and everyone taking a fraction of our $2.099 per gallon. Energy company executives and politicians alike realize price is king and expend resources to keep it so. All a minimum wage earner knows is when price at the pump goes down, there are a few more dollars to spend this month. What people in the oil and gas business know is each entity along the supply chain is taking a margin above their costs out of the pockets of gasoline buyers. The impact on working poor is disproportionate. Raising the minimum wage won’t fix corporate extraction of money from gasoline consumers or almost anything else.
I cut my right hand at work this week and had to get stitches — six of them at the base of my thumb.
It doesn’t hurt much, and my motor skills haven’t been impaired, however, the doctor said I’m supposed to minimize use of my hand until a worker’s comp doctor reviews my healing progress on Monday. There’s plenty of work that can be accommodated at the home, farm and auto store where I work so lost wages there shouldn’t be a problem. I went back to work after returning from the clinic — there was no lost time.
What matters more is the loss of productivity in everything else I do during spring to get by.
I contacted the farm and asked for relief from soil blocking for a week. I’ll lose that wage earning opportunity. The work restriction will also be a setback for weekend work in the garden. I had hoped to plant radishes, peas and turnips in newly turned ground, some of which I will sell at the farmers market. Income is delayed. There’s no short term disability insurance, so If I don’t work, productivity and income will be lost.
People who craft models about minimum wage often include the idea of short term disability as a footnote. Focused on hourly wage, they say if everything goes according to plan a person can make it on $15 per hour or whatever. Everything doesn’t always go according to plan, especially if one is working poor. Consequences of the minor lacerations on my right hand serve as testament.
That’s where economic models created to advocate for raising the minimum wage are inadequate. Life is much more complex. There are unwelcome limits an injury imposes on life at the economic edge. Accommodating and adjusting in response is a more resilient skill that matters more than raising the wage.
I’ll adjust because I have to to preserve the tenuous thread from which our economic life hangs.
Total Compensation Package
Anyone who has studied employee turnover knows the key reason people leave jobs is not wages. It’s how they were treated by their manager. None of the analyses about minimum wage I’ve read included this key aspect of work life. It makes a difference how well trained a manager is in a lowly paid job. The tendency is to rigidly design a work process and try to get workers to fit in like they were a precision machined part of the operation. Low tolerances for performance are often baked into the job, but regardless of performance if one’s supervisor is a prick, that employment will end eventually, usually by choice of the employee.
Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, companies that employ workers 30 or more hours per week must provide health insurance. To the employer this is one of many costs that yield a total cost of the employee. There is a tendency to push as much of the cost for health insurance on the employee in the form of premium co-pays, deductibles and co-pays. In my current job employees get health insurance benefits with reasonable premium co-pays and a high deductible/co-pay structure. Family coverage is more expensive, and the cost of covering a spouse is roughly equal to the cost of the least expensive policy on the government health insurance marketplace for a single individual.
Since the insurance is offered by the employer, there is no government premium subsidy, which with premium co-pays creates a disincentive for working poor to seek full time work with benefits. It is easier, and better economically, to work multiple part time jobs without benefits and sign up for health insurance through the marketplace to get the subsidy.
Wages in larger businesses are a function of total pay package. Smart companies look at the competitive marketplace for employees and determine the range of how much a position should be paid. Often a human resources consulting firm is engaged to benchmark compensation per position. Once the range is determined, the company decides what part of pay is through benefits and what part through wages. Wages, paid time off, workers compensation, disability, health and dental insurance, employee discounts, clothing allowances and the like are all part of the cost of an employee and their total compensation package. Companies will always strive to keep the overall cost of employees low.
If government raises the minimum wage, a company will seek to keep employee compensation costs the same or lower. That means some aspect of pay and benefits will take a hit, shifting the same dollars to wages from benefits. Another alternative is to turn employee hiring and management over to a temp agency which bills employee costs at a fixed rate. In some cases, like that of the Whirlpool Corporation’s recent operation in North Liberty, there are multiple layers of this type of outsourcing. The employee may earn slightly above minimum wage, but the rest of the benefits package is taken by the temp agency or subcontractor. Raising minimum wage may only shift where the money is coming from. It all comes from the total compensation package.
The starting point for a new conversation about wages is to consider our history, the impact of corporations on almost every aspect of our lives, the risks of injury in low wage jobs and how the total compensation package and erosion of benefits in favor of wages makes a difference when one is working poor. Hopefully this post will serve to begin some new, more meaningful discussions.