Fast Food Workers: You Don’t Deserve $15 an Hour to Flip Burgers, and That’s OK

Dear fast food workers,

It’s come to my attention that many of you, supposedly in 230 cities across the country, are walking out of your jobs today and protesting for $15 an hour. You earnestly believe — indeed, you’ve been led to this conclusion by pandering politicians and liberal pundits who possess neither the slightest grasp of the basic rules of economics nor even the faintest hint of integrity — that your entry-level gig pushing buttons on a cash register at Taco Bell ought to earn you double the current federal minimum wage.

I’m aware, of course, that not all of you feel this way. Many of you might consider your position as Whopper Assembler to be rather a temporary situation, not a career path, and you plan on moving on and up not by holding a poster board with “Give me more money!” scrawled across it, but by working hard and being reliable. To be clear, I am not addressing the folks in this latter camp. They are doing what needs to be done, and I respect that.

Instead, I want to talk to those of you who actually consider yourselves entitled to close to a $29,000 a year full-time salary for doing a job that requires no skill, no expertise and no education; those who think a fry cook ought to earn an entry-level income similar to a dental assistant; those who insist the guy putting the lettuce on my Big Mac ought to make more than the emergency medical technician who saves lives for a living; those who believe you should automatically be able to “live comfortably,” as if “comfort” is a human right.

To those in this category, I have a few things I need to say, for your own sake:

First, let me start with a story. It’s anecdotal, obviously, but then this whole #FightFor15 “movement” is based entirely on anecdotes.

I submit mine: I’m 28 years old now. I started working when I was about 15. I did hourly, customer service-type stuff at grocery stores, snowball stands and pizza places, never making much more than the bare minimum at any of them.

When I was 20 I moved out of the house and got my first job in radio. Starting out as a rock DJ in Delaware, I made $17,000 a year, or about $8 an hour. I lived off of that, earning a few small raises through the years — having to eat fewer meals, buy fewer things, and, God forbid, even forgo cable and Internet access in my apartment — right up to when I got married at 25.

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Around my 26th birthday, over 10 years after my first job, I landed a position in Kentucky that paid me around $40,000. It was the first time I’d ever made the equivalent of $15 an hour or more. Again, this was after 10 years of working. Of course, our newfound wealth soon had to be split between four people, as my wife became pregnant with our twins within a few months of me starting the job.

After finding out that we were expecting not one baby, but two, I started my website. I wrote every day for six months before I made much more than a dime on it. It wasn’t until August 2013 that I earned my first significant chunk of money. By my 27th birthday last year, I was finally making a “comfortable living.”

It took me over a decade to get here.

You think the jobs I had when I was 16 should have provided me with the comfortable living I just established in my late 20s? Frankly, I think you’re delusional.

To understand how delusional, consider that a $15 an hour full-time salary would put you in the same ballpark as biologists, auto mechanics, biochemists, teachers, geologists, roofers and bank tellers.

You’d be making more than some police officers.

You’d easily out-earn many firefighters.

Ironically, you’d be fast food workers with starting salaries higher than many professional chefs, which is a bit like paying a tattoo artist less than the person who paints cat whiskers on your face at the carnival.

You’d be halfway to the income of accountants, engineers and physical therapists.

Does that sound fair? It might sound fun, but does it sound fair? These are highly skilled jobs that require years of training and education. These are jobs which, in some cases, our society profoundly relies upon. Jobs with enormous responsibilities. Jobs that are considerably more complex and complicated than refilling the soda fountain at Roy Rogers.

In this photo taken, Aug. 1, 2013, demonstrators protesting what they say are low wages and improper treatment for fast-food workers march in downtown Seattle.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
In this photo taken, Aug. 1, 2013, demonstrators protesting what they say are low wages and improper treatment for fast-food workers march in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

I’m not insulting you, but when you claim you ought to be able to stroll into Hardee’s and be immediately rewarded with a salary higher than crane operators and medical lab technicians, someone needs to talk some sense into you.

I wish I didn’t have to point out that you are doing something which is fundamentally worth very little, but when you stomp your feet and insist you should be handed what some of us worked decades to earn, that’s when it becomes time for, as the kids would say, real talk.

So, real talk: Your job isn’t worth 15 bucks an hour. Sure, as a human being, you’re priceless. As a child of God, you’re precious, a work of art, a freaking miracle. But your job wrapping hamburgers in foil and putting them in paper bags — that has a price tag, and the price tag ain’t anywhere close to the one our economy and society puts on teachers and mechanics.

Don’t like it? Well, you shouldn’t. It’s fast food. It’s menial. It’s mindless. It’s not supposed to be a career. It’s not supposed to be a living. An entry-level position making roast beef sandwiches at Arby’s isn’t meant to be something you do for 26 years.

It isn’t paying enough? OK, get another job. Get a second job. Get a third job. Get a different job.

Trust me, this is a better plan than asking the government to force your employer to pay you significantly more than the market allows.

I know you might not care about the economics of this thing. After all, you aren’t economists (but with $15 an hour you’d almost be in the same income bracket). But it should be of some interest to learn a $15 an hour minimum wage would represent a steep tax on jobs. And the problem is simple: when you tax something, you get less of it.

Why? Because, despite what Elizabeth Warren might tell you, these fast food franchise owners have a finite amount of money to spend on operating expenses. They aren’t making millions in profits, most of them, so when you come along and say, “Hey, your labor costs just doubled — congratulations!” that business owner will have to make decisions.

It’s not about what he wants to do, it’s what he’ll have to do.

And those decisions will likely start with the most obvious: hire less, fire more. If you do survive that first cut — which, if you’re skipping work to hold signs in the parking lot, I don’t like your chances — then you’ll have to deal with greater expectations, more responsibilities and less room for error. In other words, at a minimum, you won’t get away with treating your customers like dirt.

But after a while, as automation technologies become more and more ubiquitous, your employer will look for the first chance to replace you with a machine that can do the same thing more efficiently and for less money. It’s not that he’ll want to, necessarily, it’s that he will have to, in order to stay in business.

You might be aware that “studies” exist “proving” the minimum wage increases employment and reduces poverty. But studies can prove anything you want them to prove, and in this case, most credible research indicates the opposite.

Extensive investigations have demonstrated a causal link between job loss and minimum wage hikes, and even the Congressional Budget Office says that a minimum wage of just over $10 an hour could cost half a million jobs.

Besides, what we’re talking about here — or what you’re talking about — is not an incremental hike, but a massive, sudden, dramatic, calamitous spike that upends the economy and, in one instant, makes low-skill fast food employment more profitable than dozens of other far more skilled, far more important types of jobs. None of these estimates, then, even come close to capturing the lunacy of a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Do you think it can happen in a vacuum? Do you think we can magically take a 17-year-old Wendy’s employee, give him a salary commensurate with law enforcement officers and emergency medical workers, and everything will just continue along as normal?

No, these jobs have a value in the economy. You use the sledgehammer of government to flip the scales upside down like that, and you end up far into the land of Unintended Consequences. What would they be? Hard to know, exactly. I imagine, for one thing, given the “profit vs. effort required” calculation, we’ll have more people becoming Subway sandwich artists and fewer people putting out fires, teaching children and building bridges.

That is, unless these other professions raise their incomes to compete, which they can’t afford to do, so look for the inevitable mass firings to extend beyond the doors of your fast food establishment and out into virtually every other industry in the country. This is to say nothing of the hike in living expenses that will naturally follow when millions of people are given a huge collective raise overnight.

And all so that you could avoid working your way up the income ladder like everyone else had to do.

Speaking of which, lest you think your lack of a $15 per hour income puts you in some kind of Special Victim Category, I took an informal survey on Twitter this morning. I asked my followers when they finally earned $15 an hour, and what their profession was at the time. Here are some of the responses:

 

 

 

 

 

These are people who had to undergo years of training and education to finally find a job that pays them what you want to make at McDonald’s. So what are they — suckers? What was the point? Why’d the do it? And why do you deserve to skip over the hard part — the part where you make sacrifices and go hungry and do whatever it takes to make ends meet — just to inherit by governmental decree what these people sweated for years to attain?

You don’t. And that’s OK.

The job you have right now isn’t the point. It’s a stop along the way, not the final destination.

Want to live comfortably? That’s a fine goal. But it’s just that: a goal. The government can’t give you your goals on a silver platter. One way or another, you have to achieve them.

I know it’s not easy, and know it’s not particularly enjoyable to work for little money in a job you hate. I’ve done it. Your parents probably did it. A lot of people’s parents did it, anyway. Millions and millions and millions of people have done it and are doing it. There’s nothing special about your situation, which is something you should take comfort in.

So here’s my suggestion: Put down the sign. Tuck in your shirt. Plaster a fake smile on your face. Go to work. Flip those burgers and work those cash registers like your life depends on it. Do it like it’s your art, like it’s your passion, like it’s you’re mission on Earth.

Take some pride in what you do, not because it’s fast food, because it’s what you do. Take on extra shifts if you can. Work holidays if you have to. Do whatever it takes. Whatever it takes.

I guarantee you won’t be wearing that White Castle uniform forever. I know you don’t want to, and you shouldn’t want to. That’s why you should stop trying to make this job comfortable, and start trying to make it an uncomfortable rung on a ladder to a better place.

Where is the ladder headed, exactly? Well, that’s up to you.

And that’s the whole fun of it.

You don’t deserve $15 an hour to work a drive thru. But you might very well deserve significantly more to do something else.

Now figure out what that is, and go grab it.

Godspeed.

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