As this election nears, I find myself passionate about a local issue: San Jose, following the stronger leads of San Francisco, Seattle, and Albuquerque, is proposing to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10 per hour. I will be precinct walking on Saturday to help make this happen.
This raise is more important than ever. What I’ve noticed in the minimum-wage calculations of journalists and experts, is an oversight. Most analysts assume a forty-hour work week, but the truth is, minimum wage earners in retail and service jobs have a hard time counting on forty hours.
One woman I know has been at her job ten years; she’s a known and valued supervisor, yet even she cannot get the forty hours she needs. I suspect that her employer, a hotel chain, has run the numbers through their “resource-maximizing” software (available through DayForce and Kronos) and discovered that you can reduce the impact of higher wages with fewer hours. So even after ten years, she has no reliable income or working hours, and her raises disappear in diminished time. Of course, when the hotel is busy, she might have a sixty-hour week, and she might work eight days straight, just a few hours each day, paying for gas each way every time. That’s because, as a retailer said recently in response to a question about employees being able to meet rent, “That’s not our responsibility.”
But it gets worse. My friend’s hotel employer wants rooms cleaned faster, in twenty-six minutes now. As a New York Times article noted, the idea is to wring the maximum out of people, get their best, hardest, and fastest work, and when it comes time for lunch or rest, well, that’s on their own time.
Thank God, the New York Times has been highlighting the hours question recently because the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect detailed information on part-time work even though such work represents an enormous and negative trend in employment. Some part of me asks, “Is this failure an example of willful ignorance? Do government and business decision makers want deniability?” More likely, they just never thought of it. The working class is below their radar. Certainly this national election has shown that few dare to say “poor” or “working class,” the new dirty words.
One final thought: how ironic that some of these abusive employers—Chipotle, Fresh n’ Easy, Jamba Juice— tout how healthy they are—just not healthy for their own employees. No doubt the owners and managers are all good men and women of business. If only Charles Dickens were alive today to send Jacob Marley and his chains into those stores calling out in sepulchral tones: “Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!” What happens to those on the bottom, inevitably, will affect everyone sooner or later.