Waging War

2 dollar 0619I’m sitting here, under a cat, with my feet propped up in some rather wan sunlight, wishing it was warmer, even as I wonder what I’m wishing for. Chris Spears, meteorologist at CBS 4 Denver, has promised a 90-degree day in Denver. Yesterday may have been Denver’s first 90-degree-day of the year, and apparently this is the latest in a year that’s happened since 1982.

And we’re not likely to get anywhere near that temperature in Gunnison, unless you step inside the production area of Pat’s Screen Printing. By mid-afternoon my jeans will be sticking to my legs and I will be ruing my need for more sun on my toes this morning.

I am thinking many things this morning, most of them as unfocused as the camera on my phone, which is one of the things I’m thinking about. I do not love that so many of the photos I post for this blog are a tad fuzzy. But I don’t not love this enough to want to invest in a better phone, which in this case would mean a better camera. The phone generally works fine, although reception is bad back by my desk at work.

One of the things on my mind the last couple of days is minimum wage and teenagers, and I kind of want to write to my state legislators on this matter because I think it’s a lot bigger than just me.

A few years back, a ballot proposal before the voters of Colorado advocated for an increase of minimum wage. It had been somewhere in the $8 or $9 per hour range; the proposal, which passed, took it in 90-cent annual increments to $12, and after that it will go back to being adjusted by pegging it to some consumer price index, as it was prior to this jump.

Let me just state for the record that a federal minimum wage of $7.25 is reprehensible. Before taxes, a full-time minimum-wage worker would get $15,080 annually. More than $1,150 comes straight off the top for Social Security and Medicare, so someone needs to try to get by on less than $14,000.

I believe the argument in favor of such a low rate is that most people make more than minimum wage. And if I thought that was true, that this wage is mostly for teenagers working part-time, that would be one thing. Because I’ve decided that’s about a teenager’s worth.

As a social capitalist, or capital socialist, or something, my worldviews clash when I’m discussing the abstract need for people to be able to earn a living wage versus my existence as a business owner. Some study conducted locally that I heard nothing about until after the fact showed I am not alone in this, but Pat’s Screen Printing does not pay people very well.

The two things I wish I could offer employees are health insurance and a decent wage. I have looked and looked and tried and tried, and insurance for all employees just is not an option. Under the Affordable Care Act there’s some sort of tax break for employers who provide health insurance, but it did not pencil out at all for Pat’s or any other business my size. (In the world of industry, “small” is actually much larger than my company, which might be a “micro mini” or something.)

On the wage front, I used to be pleased when we could offer people a rate higher than minimum wage, but as that wage climbs up a hefty 90 cents each year (the jump to $11.10 for 2019 was a nearly 9% raise; it’s a 7.5 percent hike to go to $12 next year), I am having more and more trouble keeping people ahead of it. And their raises go up by a dollar factor rather than a percentage, which means those at the bottom of the scale are faring much better than those who have been at Pat’s for several years.

So now we have experienced staff members who have honed their expertise over time making just not that much over minimum wage working alongside seasonal help that’s getting paid quite handsomely to move at a beginner’s pace and make rookie mistakes.

This summer my plan to not hire any extra people defaulted to taking on two part-time teenagers. And while they are nice kids (both 14-year-old incoming high school freshmen), neither of them is worth what they are getting paid, especially when compared to what the rest of the staff makes.

For probably most of its existence, Pat’s has run on teen power. It sounded like Pat relied on youthful seasonal help, which is certainly the way it worked when I took over. There was no money or need for year-round help, and this appears to have been a productive summer job for several young people, some of whom grew out of their teenage years into their early 20s before moving on to more career-oriented jobs.

Now some people are making Pat’s their career, and gaining this experience and cutting down on turnover has been huge plus for Kara (who herself went from teen employee to business partner) and me. This ought to reflect in paychecks. And about three years ago, it didn’t look half bad, when minimum wage was less than $9.

But now the pay scale has flattened out, and I am appalled at how close to “minimum” some of my employees are. And when we tack on another 90-cent increase . . . well, it’s disrespectful to the people who have been here.

But there is really no cushion to increase the entire pay scale, which also seems to be what that local study discovered. If you want to get rich in this world, owning a business in downtown Gunnison does not appear to be the fast track for that. Or even a slow track. (The local joke: How do you make a small fortune? Move to Gunnison with a large one.) And if we pay people what they’re really worth, there will be no business to pay them from.

To me the solution, particularly for 14-year-olds, is to offer a sub-minimum wage. I’m sure the fear is that employers will find a way to exploit that and subject other workers to this lower rate, but there really needs to be a different scale for teens first entering the workforce.

I have a friend whose daughter has a couple of times expressed interest in working at my shop, and in the old days I used to be able to find a little bit of money here and there to help out friends’ offspring. But now it becomes a major financial commitment, and when I am re-doing all the work I paid a 14-year-old a full wage to do, I have to rethink this as an option.

If I look on it as an investment — perhaps one or both of these young people might work here for several summers — then it seems less burdensome. But it’s still galling to pay a young beginner nearly as much as someone who has been here several years.

And I don’t know if I’ve finished my thoughts or not, but my phone rang six times in one hour before work, so now instead of re-doing teenage-quality work, I am blogging, and I need to not be. Plus, I am indeed ruing my wish for warm toes, because we’re not yet at noon and my jeans are already sticking to my legs. So I am signing off.


2 thoughts on “Waging War

  1. I know what you’re saying and have often wondered about value of the work and pay. They often don’t match up. New software programmer or ICU nurse? Retaining and developing staff can be “priceless”. Perhaps you could call those summer teen jobs “internships”, which in many ways they are….. and pay closer to what is reasonable.


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