Eric Frazier

Time to fix America’s minimum wage mess

Brittany Johnson, a waitress, hopes for a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Brittany Johnson, a waitress, hopes for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Staff Photo

“We work! We sweat! Put $15 on our check!”

So chanted two dozen or so protesters outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center Thursday. Count them among the growing number of demonstrators pressuring cities like Charlotte to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour.

If you passed them – or if you’ve passed any similar protests over the minimum wage – you’ve probably wondered why the people holding signs and chanting slogans don’t just stop all the yelling and go get the additional training or schooling that leads to higher-paying jobs.

I put that question to one of the demonstrators.

Brittany Johnson, 23, a Vance High School graduate, works as a waitress at a Pineville Waffle House. Her pay: $2.75 an hour, plus tips.

Since she only gets about 20 hours per week, she works other day-laboring jobs whenever she can. She keeps her name on file with a temp agency, and has worked as a house painter and factory assembly line worker, among other things.

She dreams of becoming a professional massage therapist someday, but can’t pay for school to get trained.

So, she lives off Clanton Road with a roommate – in “low-income housing,” she adds. She can’t afford a car, so she relies on the city bus to get to work.

She feels certain her hourly labors are worth $15.

“I take orders, I write tickets, I cash out. Sometimes I cook the food, just depending. Some days I have to leave home three hours early for a four-hour shift, and I’ll only make $10.”

She went on. “Sometimes it seems like it’s not worth it. But I don’t want to quit. I don’t have a quitter heart. I’m working. That’s what I’ve learned to do. I work my way through things. I’m not asking for a handout. We’re just asking for what we deserve, and what we deserve is $15, at minimum.”

It is, as the salesmen say, a “big ask.” What workers wouldn’t like to see raises of 50 percent or more in their paychecks? Still, the protesters are gaining traction. Cities such as Seattle have already adopted the $15-an-hour standard, and New York state has adopted it for all fast-food workers.

Most contenders in Charlotte’s mayoral race want to raise the minimum wage, but state law limits the city’s reach to its own workers.

Common sense tells you it’s time for some sort of raise.

Worker productivity, CEO pay, corporate earnings, the cost of living – you name an economic benchmark, it’s probably soared in the past three of four decades.

But today’s federal minimum wage, stuck at $7.25, saw its inflation-adjusted value peak in 1968. It’s been falling since, while we debate whether raising it will kill jobs or raise consumer prices.

Here’s what’s not up for debate. Millions of people out there are willing to work – hard – and yet they can’t make ends meet. We’ve bumbled our way to an hourglass-shaped economy – plenty of room at the top and bottom, squeezed in the middle.

Is $15 the right number? I don’t know. But I know you can’t live on $2.75-an-hour plus tips. And I know I’d shudder at the thought of living on $290 a week, which is what the federal minimum wage gets you.

Let’s not kill small businesses. But can we afford a little help for the Brittany Johnsons among us? Of course we can.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com.

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