Minimum Wage Punishes Hard Work, Loyalty

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition – April 2, 2008

By: Corey King

Looking around the fast-food restaurant where I work, I see more dread than excitement about the minimum wage increase that was implemented April 1 — ironically, Fools’ Day.

The reason for this is simple: The increase in minimum wage does not mean an increase in wages for everyone.

Employees that have been working for the same company for years are seeing the raises they earned for hard work over many years being eaten away by the increase in minimum wage. This is because many employers, like my own, only increase the wages of the employees who are sitting below the new minimum level, making no effort to adjust the wages of other employees.

Though this wage increase is designed to make the quality of life better for the working poor, it seems to do a better job of forcing more people into the lowest possible pay bracket, like a fishing net collecting more people at the bottom with each new increase.

Of course, not all companies are so frugal. I have many friends who work dead-end jobs who welcome the wage increase because their employers promise to adjust their wages by 50 cents across the board, preventing inequality in the pay scale.

For the rest of us, our employers will only do what is minimally legally required of them. So a co-worker of mine who has worked full time for about eight years will now only be making a little over $1 more an hour than a newly hired employee off the street.

Such lack of respect for employee loyalty has caused many of my co-workers to become disgruntled, yet they have managed to keep their work ethic intact. They are frustrated and some of them even want to leave, knowing that it won’t be long before their years of hard work will have landed them at the bottom.

Though not nearly as heartbreaking as many of the stories my co-workers tell, I went through a similarly frustrating situation last year when the minimum wage was increased to $8 an hour. About a month prior to the wage increase, I got promoted. The promotion came with a 40-cent raise, which bumped me up from $7.60 to $8 an hour.

When the province-wide minimum wage increase came into effect, I was excited by the prospect of getting yet another raise. Instead, I felt bitter that my promotion came with more responsibility but equal pay compared to even the newest employee.

Same thing this year. I got my annual raise a few months ago. This week’s wage increase will blow my meagre 20- cent raise out of the water and make the whole concept of earning a raise cease to matter.

Every cent I earn from the company that grants me a slightly larger paycheque than a less-skilled and less-experienced newbie will be swallowed up and overtaken by the wage increase. Unlike some of my older co-workers who have families to worry about, my work ethic has suffered.

Couple the current state of raises with the fact that many companies increase their product prices several weeks before the wage increase and we create a very desperate situation, where working hard ceases to matter.

Since there are a lot of minimum wage jobs out there in our retail based economy and since loyalty earns you nothing more than a bitter taste in your mouth, respecting the hand that feeds you ceases to matter.

The bottom of the barrel grows bigger as the top grows more distant. I’m afraid we could be approaching a breaking point where the younger generation, people like myself, grow sick of these games.

At least my friends and I see a way out as we earn our university degrees, but for the many wonderful people who are stuck working these low-income jobs, what they are learning is that they are expendable.

There are no easy answers, but I feel legislation could help curb this trend. The government should think carefully next time it attempts to increase the minimum wage. The government should consider how history has proven that if the lowest-paid people continue to grow more disgruntled, there could be a crisis.

I ask that before we raise the wage again, we make it required by law that companies adjust all employee wages up by the increase in the minimum wage so that we don’t all get swept to the bottom. Failing that, don’t increase the minimum wage at all.

By requiring all business to adjust wages to match the increase in minimum wage, we not only get closer to actually helping lower income people, but we make sure long-term, stable employment matters.

Corey King is a third year-film student at the University of Manitoba. He has supported himself and his studies for several years by working in food services.