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SALMAGUNDI: Hourly workers deserved our respect before current crisis

Reader rancor over minimum wage from bothersome to infuriating

Last March I used this space to examine the spending power of someone working 40 hours per week on what then was the state’s minimum wage of $8.25 per hour. It’s now $9.25 and will be $10 as of July 1, which yields $20,800 in gross annual income.

By looking at things like local rent costs, utilities, phone and internet access and other basic cost of living expenses, I hoped to demonstrate a disparity between the minimum wage and what it takes to make it on your own in La Salle County without government assistance. In other words, failing to pay a living wage to full-time employees essentially shifts the burden of providing for those workers onto the broader national tax base.

Many of the people who responded to that piece heartily disagreed. The following are excerpts from our Facebook comments on that post:

“Adults who continue to work in entry level jobs are freezing out the younger people who need to start somewhere.”

“Yeah means ur a pos unskilled person get over it.”

“It usually means you have minimal skills, when you get some skills and assume some additional responsibilities, you would qualify and move on to a better paying job.”

“Minimal skills = minimal pay.”

“Minimum wage should only address bare minimum needs. Clothes? there are rummage sales, second-hand stores, and giveaways, they are available at little to no cost to those on minimum wage. Food, most minimum wage earners qualify for food stamps. Most minimum wage earners qualify for section 8 housing. For those that don't or are on the wait list… get a roommate until you can gain skills to take you out of minimum wage level jobs. No internet go to the library you can use theirs for free. Minimum wage earners qualify for free health insurance with no or extremely minimum co-pays.”

“It’s not the company’s responsibility to overpay people who lack the skills to earn more than they do. It’s a tough fact of life.”

“Those making minimum wage are mostly high school or college students. None of them will be trying to rent a place of their own. Anyone outside of that needs to blame themselves for making minimum wage at that point in their lives.”

“A burger flipper doesn’t have legit skills. Look for employment that pays more.”

“Those who are lazy wish to be saved. You must do the saving yourself.”

The rancor bothered me then; it infuriates me now. At a time when many people are seeing their work classified as nonessential — or at least that it can be done from home — the “lazy,” the “pos unskilled” who “wish to be saved” are getting up and heading to work, day after day. They stock shelves, bag groceries, flip burgers, run cash registers and plenty of other tasks that actually are essential to keep the retail and food service economy rolling.

You can’t hoard toilet paper until someone takes it off the truck, enters it into inventory and carts it out to the sales floor. You can’t pick the shelves clean of dairy and meat without similar efforts. You can’t get carryout or hit up the drive-through without a line cook sweating over the grill and fryer. You can’t roll up to the curb and have someone place the bags full of groceries you ordered online in your trunk without a human being doing the actual work of walking the aisles.

Those people generally only get paid when they punch the time clock. They can’t afford to stay home if a kid’s school is closed, and also might not have budgeted for child care. They have to think twice about missing a shift for their own health concern or if they could afford any recommended treatment.

Are all these folks earning the bare minimum? Certainly not. But are all those jobs paid based on a scale that starts relative to the legal minimum? Absolutely. That base level similarly informs pay rates for all hourly jobs, such as nurses, emergency medical technicians and pharmacy specialists.

The Illinois minimum wage jumps $1 per hour each Jan. 1 until reaching $15 in 2025. The law ties future increases to the consumer price index. That still might fall short of getting every full-time worker a living wage, but it represents progress.

What the law won’t do is force the rest of us to respect those doing difficult, undesirable work for the literal least they can earn. We shouldn’t need a crisis to create empathy.

SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor. He can be reached at facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749. 

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