The story of minimum wage is often told through the eyes of the politician – how hiking it would help the low wage earner, to lift them out of poverty versus the loss of jobs or reduced hiring for businesses. However, firsthand accounts allow for greater understanding of the lives behind the economy and politics.
Bachir, age 20, is an immigrant from Algeria. He arrived here one year ago on a student visa. During the day he studies English at the Boston Language Academy and has now achieved Level 5, meaning that, if he gets a 650 on his TOEFL score, soon he will be able to graduate and apply as an undergraduate student in a community college. At night he works as a dishwasher, earning minimum wage, at Arabella Pizza Restaurant in the Fenway.
Many of his co-workers are undocumented workers from Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Philippines – some of whom came legally to the U.S. on student visas that lapsed when they could no longer afford tuition. They work long hours as dishwashers in the pizzeria, hoping to pay off their debts and return to school or, after having achieved something, return to their native countries.
Sharing crowded living conditions to make ends meet, and unable to afford meals outside of the pizzeria, most of the employees have little or nothing to show at the end of a week’s pay. Those who are undocumented make less than minimum wage, but can’t complain for fear of drawing attention to themselves.
Bachir is relatively fortunate in that he makes $8 per hour. He has heard the political news about the potential hike to $10.10 per hour, but does not put much credence in it since he does not have faith in the political system. And, although he’s often exhausted, he does not dare quit his job since he needs the money for rent and basic necessities. Having no health insurance, he just rests at home whenever he feels under the weather rather than going to school.
With a large number of restaurants opening and hiring in Greater Boston, the number of entry level positions in the field is growing exponentially. The disparity in income at national chains between these workers and their managers can be increments of ten thousands. However, the opportunities for advancement in the restaurant industry are not numerous, and many workers remain at the bottom or move into other areas. Servers receive as low as $2.15 per hour in exchange for tips, which they sometimes don’t control, and they often rely on government assistance to get by.
There are two sides to every story:
While restaurant employees are indisputably suffering under the current system, owners are also enduring painful realities. With extensive competition and lower profit margins, they often cannot pay their employees more than the going wage, and worry that not meeting their bottom line will result in loss of their business. Owners of independent family-owned restaurants often work extremely long hours – sometimes as much as 100 per week – picking up the slack from employees who call in sick or quit without notice, without high compensation for themselves.
Ananda is the owner of Biryani, a highly frequented Indian restaurant in Boston’s upwardly mobile South End. Since she and her husband took over the restaurant in 2007, she has hired many employees. Being fair-minded, she feels strongly about treating employees well. She hires them at the going rate and, after formal and informal reviews, regularly increases their pay and offers them promotions. And, even though it is not mandatory for small businesses to provide health insurance to their staff, she recently offered this to those who work for her.
Due to the conditions inherent in restaurant work, job turnover – even for a reasonable employer – is fairly regular. Although she and her husband have several employees who have moved from dishwasher to server to hostess to sous chef, people tend to move on in this business. Thus, Ananda has seen a wide range of employees, and even a reasonable boss can be disrespected. One example of this is when, after Ananda hired Joe as server and he had worked for just one day, he unexpectedly quit, leaving her short-handed. This was dismaying enough, but imagine her surprise when, less than a week later, she received a notice from Unemployment, asking her to contribute to Joe’s weekly compensation. From her lawyer, she learned that this was completely legal.
When asked whether or not she was in favor of raising the minimum wage, Ananda adamantly disagreed. She thought of another system whereby employees start at the current going rate and then get increases based on performance and longevity, working their way eventually to the proposed $10.10 – after a probation period of three months or perhaps longer. She asked why – rather than going head-to-head philosophically – politicians had not considered a middle road such as this one.
For the purpose of this story, the author has changed the names of some people and organizations to protect their anonymity. As such, this article is an opinion piece that has judiciously utilized both formal and informal research sources.
By Fern Remedi-Brown
In-class journal entries from Bachir (not his real name) at Boston Language Academy (not the actual school), March and April, 2013
Personal interview with Ananda (not her real name), at Biryani (not the actual restaurant name), February 19, 2014