If you don’t live on it, you probably don’t think about it. But during this election cycle, Americans from all economic walks of life are debating the federal minimum wage of $7.25. The American Dream has never been cheap, but some argue with today’s rising cost of living and stagnant wages, those ambitions are all a myth. Originally established in 1938 under President Roosevelt, the minimum wage has sat at $7.25 an hour since 2009, working out to $15,080 annually for a person working 40 hours a week, every week of the year.
The Politics of Paychecks
Minimum wage surfaces in political discussions ranging from income inequality to immigration. Policymakers seek to balance the concerns of businesses, which favor keeping costs as low as possible, with workers, who favor a more liveable income. “Liberals justify the minimum wage on the moral grounds that a just society should pay workers enough to provide for life’s basic necessities,” explained Jordan Ragusa, Assistant Professor of Political Science at
the College. Many liberals also believe that higher wages increase the spending power of the lower class and thus stimulate the economy. “Conservatives don’t support either of these views,” Ragusa said. The conservative view posits that mandating a higher wage forces employers to cut back on employee hours and new hires. “A number of Republican state legislatures have passed so-called ‘Right to Work’ laws,” Ragusa added, which “seek to limit the power of unions.” This legislation, effective in 25 states (including South Carolina), legalizes employees to work without joining a union.
In 2014, President Obama signed an executive order enacting a $10.10 minimum wage for federal contractors. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would raise wages to $12, according to Business Insider. Fellow Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders advocates for $15, more than double the current rate. Across the aisle, Republican candidates have expressed ranging views. Candidate Donald Trump told NBC he would maintain the minimum wage because an increase could harm the United States’ global competitiveness. Sen. Marco Rubio opposes raising the wage. Dr. Ben Carson has called for a dual standard, one “starting” wage for young people and another “sustaining” one for older workers, according to The Wall Street Journal. This attempt at compromise reflects another challenge of the issue: Not only does the rate have to satisfy both businesses and workers, it has to provide for a range of workers. Minimum wage jobs, primarily found in service industries, go to everyone from high school kids making extra spending money to adults working multiple jobs to support a family. “Whether you think minimum wage laws are good or bad,” Ragusa said, they “primarily affect young people, non-whites, and those with less than a college degree … people we typically think of belonging to the ‘working class.’”
But this isn’t an issue in Charleston … right?
In Charleston, wage-protests have caught public attention in recent years. Fast-food workers blocked traffic on Spring Street in September 2014 to advocate for a $15 an hour minimum wage. The national group Fight for 15 joined local workers in arguing that $7.25 was an unlivable wage and perpetuated a cycle of exploitation, forcing workers to rely on government assistance. The organization was joined by Black Lives Matter protesters in North Carolina in April of this year, again calling for $15 an hour. The protesters later travelled to Atlanta to join similar demonstrations. The Southeast is home to all five of the states which do not have state minimum wages: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Washington has the highest state minimum wage at $9.47. The District of Columbia has a minimum wage of $10.50. Most states hover around $7.50-$8.00, with some exceptions and worker exemptions going as low as $4.00 or $5.00.
Making the Minimum at College of Charleston
At the College of Charleston, wages are a hot topic for students, faculty and employees alike. According to the Office of Research and Grants Administration, the minimum wage for student employees and temporary employees is $7.25. For full-time employees, working a minimum of 37.5 hours per week, it rises to $7.93. The academic year is 39 weeks (or 18 pay periods) long.
The numbers can be confusing, but Courtney Bradley, Student Employment Coordinator at the Career Center, juggles them all the time. “About 12-15 percent of student employees make the minimum,” Bradley said. “Most of my employers are paying more than $7.25.” Students may seek on-campus employment for a variety of reasons. Some are simply making extra spending money while others may rely on the job for rent, tuition and other major expenses. “There’s not one average situation,” Bradley explained. “Some are working just to gain experience and get supplemental income. But the vast majority are relying on these funds, so we’re always trying to place them with more than minimum wage.” Bradley believes stigma surrounds minimum wage jobs and hurt students’ chances of success. People assume “that if you’re making minimum wage then you may not have had any additional schooling,” she said. The biggest myth she tries to bust as Student Employment Coordinator is that students who are just starting out in the workforce are not deserving of higher pay. “You’re starting out with a lot of skill.” Personally, Bradley favors raising the federal minimum wage to a happy medium, less than $15 but more than $7.25, to reflect the qualifications and skills of someone with a bachelor’s degree.
The most vocal workers in minimum wage issues nationwide are typically fast food workers; but what about the workers who feed the College community? For perspective on the non-student side of employment at the College, CisternYard approached Jan Brewton, Director of Business and Auxiliary Services. “None of the food service employees at the College are paid minimum wage,” Brewton asserted. “The lowest wage offered is $8.00 an hour.” Seventy five cents above the minimum, the relationship between the College’s lowest offered wage for food service employees and their turnover rate is difficult to assess. “We have employees who stay a semester and some who have worked for Aramark for over 35 years,” Brewton said. “There are over 27 employees
who have been with us ten or more years and 38 employees who have between five and ten years of service at the College.” Employees in food service can be as young as high school aged, if they are eligible for employment. There is no maximum age limit. “We value diversity and inclusion,” Brewton claimed, “and many ethnicities are represented on the dining services team.”
Similar Situations, Opposite Opinions
Where does student opinion come down on this issue? Daniel Lange and Ethan Knight are both male, sophomore students from South Carolina who work during the summers. Despite these similarities, they give very different accounts and opinions on minimum wage jobs. Knight has worked a minimum wage job at a local fast food restaurant. He was also working a second job at the time which paid higher, but more infrequent, wages. His earnings went to gasoline, food, clothes, entertainment and cell phone bills. Other workers at his job were typically in their teens and twenties, fairly even split between male and female and almost entirely white. Knight’s mental associations with minimum wage jobs include dealing with rude customers in service jobs, dealing with distasteful materials like trash, and doing tasks no one else will do. He favors raising the minimum wage moderately, “because it is very hard to spend and save the way you should being limited to the after-tax income.”
Lange, in contrast, has consciously never worked for minimum wage. He picked jobs with the highest possible salary. Earnings were spent primarily on gasoline and college tuition. He worked with high school and college students, both male and female. Like Knight, his coworkers were almost all white. His mental associations with minimum wage jobs are that they are usually held by uneducated people closer to the poverty line. That said, Lange does not favor raising the wage. “Fifteen dollars is too much,” he explained. “Obviously, it needs to be raised a bit to account for inflation. However, if it’s raised too high, there’ll be no motivation.” He explained that minimum wage jobs should be stepping stones, leading to higher income. “If you can sustain yourself on that stepping stone, you’ll never leave.” Lange acknowledged that his theory works best in an idealized world, and that many workers are forced to work for minimum wage due to lack of opportunity. “I do feel bad for people with no opportunities,” who are making minimum wage, he said.
Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better …
According to the College’s Groundskeeper Supervisor Paty Spearmen Cowden, the mentality of keeping wages low hurts women more than it does men. When Cowden started in landscaping about three decades ago, she was one of the only women in the business in the Charleston area. The College hired her in 1996 with a salary of $19,000; a man in the same position (who is still Cowden’s coworker today) made $34,000. Lower wages aren’t the only problem. Women frequently experience more opposition while climbing the career ladder, as the evolution of the Grounds Department over the time of Cowden’s career illustrates. When Cowden began, the Grounds workers were also responsible for the athletics facilities at Remley’s Point and the Grice Marine Laboratory. Athletics was then moved to Patriot’s Point and Cowden went to her boss in Physical Plant and made the case for higher wages. Much bigger facilities required more personnel and better wages, she reasoned. Grounds was ultimately split into an Athletics division and a Campus division. Cowden was told not to apply for the newly created Athletics position, supposedly because her expertise would be missed so much downtown. Cowden protested again when the man who took the position was given a much larger salary. A 10 percent raise was tossed her way. That was the largest raise she had ever received up to that point.
Putting a Price on Experience
Employers often default to minimum wage when making a new hire, but this can misrepresent people’s experience and skills. “I worked for three or four different companies over ten or fifteen years,” Cowden recounted, “and it seemed like every time I moved I had to prove myself again. They would say, ‘Let’s start you out on this [wage],’ but I had more experience.” This repetitive, low pay is perplexing considering Cowden’s work experience prior to arriving at the College. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1980, she worked as a crisis intervention counselor in a drug and alcohol detox center. She then went to work for a friend as the office manager of a landscaping company. “I didn’t mind starting at the bottom then because I was new,” noted Cowden. “I didn’t know as much.”
The experience of a Grounds worker at the College today has changed since 1996 in many ways, but in others it has stayed the same. Cowden is proud to say that none of her employees make the minimum wage of $7.25. Even before the law was adjusted, Cowden was relentless in pushing for higher wages. “I start everyone out at $10, and even that to me is not a living wage. If we want to recruit skilled workers, we have to raise that wage.” Cowden also changed all of the Grounds position descriptions to require at least a high school education or equivalent. Grounds workers operate gas-powered equipment and sharp blades. “There’s an inherent risk to the operator and to bystanders,” Cowden explained, arguing that the job does require training, skill and experience and should be compensated accordingly. She firmly believes that wages should be based on experience, not pay brackets. A recent job applicant came to Charleston with 15 years of experience as a crew leader in Florida. Cowden could only offer him $12 an hour, and he took a job elsewhere.
“You’ve got to train your people and if they come in already trained you should pay them for their knowledge,” she said.
Grounds and campus appearance are a big selling point for schools, especially the College, and Cowden argues that Grounds employees deserve higher wages to reflect their important role in bringing in revenue. Cowden also noted a common concern among minimum wage activists: Wages often rise too slowly to reflect actual changes in cost of living. During the 15 years she spent living in a townhouse on the Isle of Palms, rent rose from $375 a month to $1,175. Clearly, Cowden argues, people cannot go for ten years between minimum wage changes, or they risk being priced out of housing, food and basic services. Raises ought to be more frequent and based on a comprehensive list of factors, she said.
Clearly, the issue is a complex one. Minimum wage policies at the College and beyond must reflect cost-efficiency on the part of employers as well as livability for the workers. Wages sustain a wide range of demographics, from white high school students to recent adult immigrants. Many workers come to these positions with extensive experience and qualifications, but still many others come to it as a first job, or with limited education. Balancing all of these factors are crucial for the American workforce to not only survive, but to thrive in the years to come.
*This article first appeared in the November issue of The Yard