The value of increasing the minimum wage


With the help of Christina Amaya, right, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, left, mixes paint as he visits an Ace Hardware store Thursday in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The cameras were rolling as Labor Secretary Thomas Perez asked Daniel Whitney how he likes his job at Ace Hardware in the Mount Vernon Square area, where all employees are paid more than the minimum wage.

If you guessed that Whitney’s response was positive, you win a free key. (Okay, you can get one copied gratis regardless, thanks to Ace’s “free-key Friday,” not to be confused with the Disney movie in which a mom and daughter trade souls for a day and come away wiser.)

Sales associates in green vests and big smiles showed Perez how to carve a key, mix a quart of paint and cut a piece of Plexiglas. But the real point of the visit to the locally owned retailer was to highlight President Obama’s State of the Union message about raising the federal minimum wage. Increasing it to $10.10 and indexing it to inflation would help Main Street, he argues, because more money in the pocket doesn’t stay there for long. “Paying folks a fair wage,’’ Perez said at the store, “is the essence of growing a small business.”

He disputed a reporter’s question about how unlikely it is that a Republican-controlled Congress will pass legislation to raise the wage: “I think Congress can act and will act,’’ he said, because “people in red states and blues states understand no one who works full time should live in poverty.”

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 and the D.C. rate is $8.25, but Ace owner Gina Schaefer pays workers at her nine stores as least $10 an hour, and partly matches their withholding for 401(k) retirement accounts, too. Another draw, sales associate Steve Held said, is a low-stress work environment: “They trust us to do the right thing and focus on the customer.”

Does that little bit extra an hour make a difference? A man smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk outside did not think that was a very hard question. “Of course it would help,’’ said John Griffin-McBridge, who works for a family-run home-improvement business in D.C. “How would more money not help?’’

Even those who said they don’t support such an increase weren’t unconflicted. “I’m pretty conservative,’’ said Tiffany Morris, a Virginia lawyer who was browsing books at Busboys & Poets, down the block from Ace Hardware, “so I’m sympathetic to people working for lower wages, but you have such an issue of the government thrusting all these costs on small business already.”

Whatever you think the right answer is, the most striking thing about the big push might be how few people would benefit directly: Only 1.5 million Americans made the federal minimum wage in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — in addition to the 2 million who earned less, such as certain disabled workers and those who get tips.

Most of the people I stopped on the same block Perez visited said they didn’t know one person who makes minimum wage. Because they also hastened to make clear that they themselves didn’t earn such a lowly sum, maybe they do know someone in that situation and aren’t aware of it.

One who said she does know many people working multiple minimum-wage jobs, though, is dance instructor/gym employee/graduate school student Zahra Carpenter, whose ultimate aspiration is to “create this new career of ‘dance scientist,’ to help people heal.”

Carpenter, who was having a salad at Sweetgreen, said she has had a few minimum-wage jobs in past years, and has been juggling part-time gigs since she was in high school at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. But teachers there gave her an important way to think about moving beyond those early jobs, she said, by continually telling her that “if the opportunity isn’t there, you create it.”

Most of those making minimum wage are young, white, Southern, and female — in fact, fully 50 percent are white women. And many of those stuck in such jobs haven’t had the kind of practice or encouragement Carpenter was talking about.

My sister, who owns a clothing store in Los Angeles, says she can’t afford to pay minimum wage; she needs to pay much more. “I need smart, engaging, funny girls and am willing to pay a premium” to hire and keep them, she said. “There’s a lot to learn, and I can’t have new people in here every week.”

The real value of minimum-wage jobs isn’t only in leaving them behind, as Carpenter did, but in learning from them, for instance, not to become the kind of person who throws a fit over the late arrival of an entree.

The president seems to hope there’s some worth in the issue, too, in positioning his party in opposition to those who want to keep minimum-wage workers with no more purchasing power than they had 40 years ago.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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