Wage theft is a serious crime, so serious, in fact, that a court has ordered several New York-based franchise owners of Papa John’s to pay $500,000 to 250 workers. According to Laura Clawson of Daily Kos, owners have paid workers less than the minimum wage and work off the clock. One owner, Abdul Jamil Khokhar, was arrested and will spend 60 days in jail as part of a plea agreement. This story underscores the need for all American workers to understand wage theft and support their fellow workers when they are victims of such exploitation. Wage theft usually hurts low wage workers, people who have the most to lose. If we want low wage workers to be responsible, we need to ask their employers to do the same.
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features a debate on the minimum wage. Tom Balanoff a labor leader, argues that a $15 minimum wage would provide a decent standard of life for workers. Mayor Emanuel’s commission has proposed a $13 an hour minimum phased between now and 2018. Balanoff notes that Los Angeles and Seattle have already passed $15 minimum wage laws. His argument focus on the needs of workers.
Sam Sanchez and Sott Defife, a restaurant owner and an official from the National Restaurant Association, argue that a minimum wage increase will hurt business, that it is “not a silver bullet for addressing the city’s economic challenges.” Twice they call for “comprehensive” measures, but never spell out what they would change. Their focus is on the economy, not the lives of individual workers. Still, they claim that most restaurant workers are young, “first time workers.” Once upon a time, that may have been true. Today most restaurant workers I encounter are adults, often in their thirties or forties. As Sanchez and Defife state, youth unemployment is now over 25%, in no small part because adult men and women who once worked in factories now fill low wage jobs in restaurants or retail.
It’s easy to agree with one side or the other in this debate. I’m for a living minimum wage, which could be index from state to state or region to region. In most places, that would mean at least $15 per hour (an average salary of $30,000 a year). At the same time, small businesses have some reason to be fearful of a minimum wage that would put them at a competitive disadvantage. Franchise restaurants work by economy of scale, which lets them control spending in the way that a small hot dog stand or corner store cannot. If it can be done, minimum wage laws could be written in a way that would protect small businesses. In some ways, that is the current standard in the restaurant industry where tipped workers in many states can be paid less than the minimum wage.
This debate is not simple or easy. My primary concern is with what is fair to working people. A good business will adapt its practices to meet what the market demands. Tax payers should not have to pay for services that help large corporations hire workers at a low wage. We need to demand a society where no one who works full time has to depend on state aid for food, shelter, and healthcare. We need to reward work. America needs a raise.