In 1984 I briefly worked at a fast food restaurant. I was a 16-year-old high school student and admittedly spoiled by the wages I earned from my first job. At 15, I had made $10 an hour as a phone bank operator along with women almost twice my age. I was hired by my neighbor Bob Parker to work as a seasonal employee whenever he had a project but primarily during campaign season. A year later he purchased a Pioneer Chicken franchise on the corner of Baseline and Mt. Vernon in San Bernardino and offered me another job. Although I earned the minimum wage, it was better than my seasonal phone bank gig because I was able to work more hours per week and for as long as I wanted. There were no seasonal restrictions. Of course there were things I hated about that job: the crappy brown polyester uniform, standing on my feet for an entire shift, and having to deal with our prostitute and drug dealing clientele. You just never knew when something might go down on that corner. And eventually something did. A robbery. Then another robbery. And eventually Mr. Parker closed-up and went back to seasonal political work.
As a teenager who still lived under my parents’ roof I used my money for non-essentials. Like most high school students, it was easy to get work at our local fast food restaurant. We basically were just competing against our peers who were also still living at home. According to a study of fast food employment published in 1984 by the National Institute for Work and Learning, 70 percent of fast food workers then were between the ages of 16-20 years old. For our generation, these jobs were entry-level employment that offered an opportunity to develop transferable job-related skills.
In 2014, 70 percent of fast food workers are 20 years old or older. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least one in four has at least one child to support, a third of that group has some college, and at least 6 percent have a college degree. The job market has clearly changed since I was a teenager, and these jobs are no longer just entry-level skills development opportunities, they are long-term employment that supports families. And the current national minimum wage has these households hovering well below the poverty line.
In his State of the Union address earlier this year President Obama called on Congress to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, and provide a “living wage” to all fulltime workers. California is one of those states ahead of the national average, with a new $9.00 wage up from $8.00 per hour, the first minimum wage rise in six years and approved to rise to $10 in January 2016. And cities within the state are considering even higher wage increases. Earlier this Spring San Francisco’s City Council approved the highest-in-state minimum wage and is pushing for a $15 wage in the city that made the top of the list for the fastest growing wealth divide. Just last week LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced his proposal for a living wage ordinance. And San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer last month vetoed a City Council approved hike that would have set the minimum at $11.50 over three years. Just this week the City Council overrode the veto and the business community started a petition campaign to put the initiative on the ballot for voters to decide.
When it comes to the minimum versus living wage debate, as a small business owner, I understand the concerns of the business community as we slowly recover from the recent recession, but as a publisher of a newspaper that has historically advocated for the voiceless and disenfranchised, I understand the need for a living wage, especially for our families here in Inland Southern California. In an era where the gap between the rich and the poor is widening and those in between have seen their incomes stagnate, this may be, as President Obama has suggested, “the defining challenge of our time.” It is definitely a contentious issue that all sides will need to sacrifice something to resolve.
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