Friday, August 12, 2016

Deep-Frying Fast-Food's Wage Hike

"Bless his lil' heart."

Say it with a Southern accent and a sugary lilt, and look at a photo of Bernie Sanders when you do.

Bless his heart.  He's given it away to Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Party whose e-mails indicate its leadership can't stand him.  But he's still a Socialist at heart, something liberals are split over endorsing.

Take the Facebook post by Sanders this morning, in which he calls for a raise in the minimum wage:

"Fast food CEOs make 1,203 times more than their average worker, but they refuse to pay their workers a living wage.  It's time to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour."

And then there's a graphic with lots of little red icons (figures they'd be red, huh?) to drive home what 1,203 of something looks like.

Raising the minimum wage has been a plank in the liberal platform for several years now.  And the rationale, at first blush (blushes are also red; go figure), seems legit:  all these people working front-counter, front-line jobs, facing the public every day, having to work under hot conditions with greasy foods, all for a fraction of what folks earn in the executive suite.  It's not fair.  They're both people putting in 8-hour days.  Who says the executive is working harder in his air-conditioned board room than the guy cleaning up the vomit some kid spewed all over a table after eating too much processed chicken fat?

Except take that argument any further, and you start sounding jealous.  What do executives do that merits so much more pay per hour than the grunt workers at the opposite end of the pay scale?  Well, frankly, I don't know.  I've often wondered why some of the people who make as much as they do figure they're worth as much as they make.  A lot of highly-paid people aren't earning their pay; their resume just happens to click all the right boxes on a corporate pay algorithm.  The idea is that the people who aren't really earning their keep eventually get fired, but that doesn't always happen, of course.

For years, economists have argued the merits of the corporate salary mentality, but basically, it's generally believed that because corporate workers tend to think more, take more risks, and assume what's believed to be a greater liability for the company, then they're worth more than whatever the minimum wage happens to be.

It may not be entirely fair, but it's the way Wall Street says business should be done, and in the grand scheme of things, it is a lot harder to find people qualified to fill ever-increasing-complexity jobs in the corporate office than it is in the rote, minimal-skill jobs on the front lines of a fast-food restaurant's kitchen.  So according to capitalism's metrics, the easier the job is to fill, and the more basic its required skill set is, then the pay scale is reduced to reflect those realities.

What does that mean?  It means, frankly, that not every job, even in a large corporation, is going to pay what we consider to be a "living wage."  Each job should have a pay rate relative to that job's worth to the enterprise, and a lot of jobs are worth less to an organization like a fast-food company than the jobs in its corporate suite.  It may look punitive as far as entry-level workers are concerned, but there are advantages.  Lower pay at the bottom can encourage entry-level employees to work harder and move up the pay scale.  It encourages people to pursue a post-high-school education, whether it's with technical training or a graduate degree.  All of this extra brain-power can be useful as one rises up the chain of command.  And workers who bring more to the table, as they say, expect to be compensated accordingly.  

Being a counter clerk at a fast-food restaurant, meanwhile, is but one step on that corporate ladder.  It's not a job designed to earn its holder a lot of money.  Sure, it's hard work, but it's not specialized work.  So why should a fast-food company act as though it is?

Of course, the big paychecks taken home by these fast-food chain executives do look a bit silly.  All that money for peddling a bunch of meat scraps boiled in grease?  How much of a fast-food company's profits is due to the way its finance people structure its debts and run its accounting department, and how much is due to the quality of food service at the point of delivery, in neighborhoods across America?  Could these fast-food chains pay its front-line workers more and still be profitable?  Probably.  But with capitalism the way it is, those front-line workers are still looking at the base-line reality of their jobs:  Just about anybody can do them, fresh off the street.  Any job like that simply isn't going to command a big salary.

It's this reality that makes insinuations like Sanders' spurious.  We can't simply compare a CEO's wages with those of a counter clerk, side-by-side.  In fact, it could be argued that fast-food companies are being charitable by still providing human clerks in their restaurants.  The technology already exists to eliminate most fast-food restaurant positions and make them self-service.  And considering the glum attitude of many fast-food workers, customers would probably prefer the change.

If fast-food companies were concerned about quality, and customer retention, paying their counter employees better might be a smart move, simply to acknowledge that business is won and lost not just in the board room, but in each restaurant the company owns or franchises.  Better-paid counter staff should translate into marginally-happier workers, which in theory, should help drive sales by keeping customers happy.  As it is, most people who patronize fast-fool establishments do so more out of reluctance and a busy schedule, rather than anticipation. 

But a "living wage?"  Rewarding good employees with a couple of dollars more per hour probably won't raise the overall pay scale to whatever qualifies as "living wage" these days.  And that's because these counter jobs simply aren't jobs designed to provide for a family, let alone provide financial security to a single person.  They're jobs put out onto the job market for anybody to fill, and their pay rate is take-it-or-leave-it.

Just because a lot of fast-food employees actually work these jobs and try to make a living for their families off of the pay, that doesn't mean these should be living wage jobs.  Just because a lot of Americans these days don't have the educational attainment or pristine background that could get them a better-paying job, that doesn't mean fast-food companies should be held liable for fixing that dilemma.

What about other jobs that have failed to pay a living wage?  What about all the family farms that have gone defunct over the years as the cost of raising a family has far exceeded agricultural revenue?  Granted, we Americans currently pay huge farm subsidies, ostensibly to keep our country's farms afloat, but judging by the bloated corporate agricultural industry that's evolved in the wake of the family farm's demise, don't you suspect our tax dollars are sliding right into Big Ag's pockets?

One of the favored arguments for raising the minimum wage for restaurant workers involves the fact that many minimum-wage earners end up depending on taxpayer-funded government programs to make ends meet.  Raise the minimum wage, this logic says, and we'll reduce the amount of money taxpayers have to spend on supplementing these low wages.

Yet here again, if people are having families and otherwise assuming financial obligations they can't afford, the fix is not to get other people to fund the wage shortfall.  There's this uncomfortable and politically-incorrect concept called "personal responsibility" that's supposed to kick into gear, and propel people to do what should be done within their personal sphere of accountability to get the bills paid.  And to plan ahead just a little when it comes to big-ticket items.  Like kids, for example...

Okay, let's talk turkey:  Might this mean not engaging in teenage sex, or being a baby mommy/daddy?  Probably.  Might that mean staying in high school until you graduate?  Yes.  Might that mean not getting hooked on drugs or alcohol?  Might that mean not acquiring the latest smartphones or rims or fashionable clothing?

Actually, the fact that so many Americans seem to be only qualified for fast-food employment represents a far broader problem within our society than simply wages.  But what would raising the fast-food minimum wage fix?  Where's the money going to come from?  Do you think it's going to come from the CEO's pay package?  Or from your own pocket, the next time you hit the drive-thru?  And how many of us think what we're already paying for tepid meat on a stale roll is too much?

So Bernie, bless your lil' heart.  And all y'all who feel for the poor folk who slave away for a pittance in fast-food restaurants:  Bless y'all's lil' hearts, too.  Because on the one hand, we all know it's unpleasant work at best, and a lot of those workers have big bills to pay.

But if you liberals all thought about it, if Michele Obama had her way, America's fast-food industry would be wiped off of the economic and dietary map.  Hardly anything served by any fast-food chain is healthy in any way, shape or form.  In a sense, if wages went up, which would drive prices up, and Americans stopped eating fast-food, we'd all be better off.

Except the folks who still can only find work at their local McDonald's.

Hey, you really wanna upsize that order?

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