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Your paycheck, the economy and the minimum wage

By Joseph (last name withheld)

When most of us go out to eat, we may not think about workers who make restaurants possible.  People like me and the folks I work with can’t help but think about the restaurant workers because we are those workers. We earn our living preparing and serving fast food. You may have been hearing more about us recently. Some of our colleagues held strikes this summer in cities across the nation. Some restaurant workers make as little as $2.13 per hour, more on that later.

I earn $7.40 an hour. My income helps support three siblings and my mom, who is a single mother that works outside of the home. My pay is usually gone within two days. If my family depended entirely on me, we would have to apply for food stamps. That’s common in the restaurant industry.

Many of us work full time and still have to rely on food stamps. That’s why community groups across the country are supporting the Miller-Harkin Fair Minimum Wage Act. It would bring the minimum wage to $10.10. Here in Michigan, community groups and advocates are also supporting House Bill 4554 that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour by 2016. Both bills have indexing — meaning as the cost of living increases, so will workers’ wages.

Raising the minimum wage to $10 would mean families like mine would not have to stress about how we’re paying bills or feeding our children. It would allow people to spend more money in the city of Detroit. If we had more money to put into the community, we could get more out of it, such as stores or houses. We know the money working class people spend is a big part of the economy, and we know the economy still needs a boost.

You may know there is serious battle going on that will affect not just restaurant workers but virtually every person who works for a living. Just as a national movement is building to raise the minimum wage, the conservative billionaire Koch brothers are working to lower it.

Yes, against all logic, against the reality of the ever-rising cost of living and a slowly recovering economy, there are powerful, wealthy people funding campaigns to lower the pay and standard of living, not just for those who get the minimum wage but everyone. Because, once the minimum wage is lowered, everyone’s wages are in danger. It won’t just be those of us behind the counter where you go for lunch or midnight food runs with your friends.

We need to let our elected officials know that no full-time worker’s paycheck should be so small that he or she qualifies for the federal food program (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP).

It’s bad enough that you can work full time at the minimum wage and make just $15,000 per year. But years ago, when former presidential candidate Herman Cain was president of the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA), he struck a deal with the federal officials that would keep restaurant workers wages at $2.13 per hour if the restaurant owners so desired.

Tips were supposed to bring people up to minimum wage. Sometimes they do. Most of the time, they don’t. You don’t even want to do the math on what $2.13 per hour earns you for the year.  There are people working for national restaurant chains that can’t afford to buy the meals they cook or serve even as the chains rake in millions in profit by keeping their workers well below the poverty line and often with no medical benefits. The Fair Minimum Wage Act and HB 4554 would work to ensure that reality is changed — by raising the tipped minimum wage to be 70 percent of the regular hourly wage.

Everyone talks about breaking the cycle of poverty. Millions would rise out of poverty if we get politicians to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour. That would mean a salary of just over $19,000 per year before taxes. That won’t make anyone rich. It will add to our sense of dignity and hope.

A fair minimum wage will raise the entire nation. If our elected leaders say that’s what they want, it’s time they prove it. It’s time for everyone to earn a fair wage.

Joseph works at a local fast food restaurant in Detroit and is a member of Restaurant Opportunity Center Michigan, a group dedicated to winning improved working conditions and opportunities for advancement for Southeast Michigan’s 134,000 restaurant workers, many of whom work for low pay with little to no benefits.

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