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Op-Ed: Low-skill workers need a place to start

Calls for a “living wage” of $15 an hour have a very basic appeal. People with low incomes have it hard. Businesses have money. Therefore why not just require businesses to pay people more money? While this may be a compelling train of logic in its simplicity, it ignores significant implications that will invariably harm young, inexperienced workers and low-skill immigrants.

Positions that pay minimum wage require the lowest level of education, skill and experience of all work available in the entire labor force. This is the reason the pay is so low. As such, the majority of people who make minimum wage are young workers, typically with less education, and in California more than in other parts of the country, low-skill immigrants who may face education and language barriers.

Minimum wage jobs are important for these workers because they provide essential on-the-job training and experience that allows them to raise their standard of living. They allow the bagger at the grocery store to become a cashier, they allow the bus boy at a restaurant to become a waiter, they allow the cashier at a McDonald’s to become an assistant manager, they allow a food prepper to become a sous chef, they allow a salon assistant to become a hair stylist, and they allow a part-time video logger to become a video editor. These entry-level jobs don’t pay very well, but it is precisely because they don’t pay well that employers are willing to give the less experienced a chance. For many of us, getting our foot in the door and working hard was an essential part of our early careers. A higher minimum wage doesn’t reduce the number of feet, just the number of doors.

By requiring employers to raise wages for the simplest and most basic of positions, you have not increased the basic skills of those workers, you haven’t educated them, you haven’t increased their English language skills. While well meaning, you have instead created an incentive for employers to be more selective about who they hire for those positions and, if possible, find ways to reduce such positions. This means the cashier and you bag your own groceries, the waitress also buses your table, you order at a touch screen at McDonald’s, the sous chef does all of the prep, the hairstylist does without an assistant and the video editor does their own logging. While it is true that some jobs will continue to be made obsolescent by technology, artificially hastening that process is not good for businesses or low-skill workers.

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Increasing the minimum wage creates inflexibility and discriminates against people who need low-pay jobs the most — low-skill workers. When advocating for $15 minimum wage, proponents are essentially saying, “If you don’t have enough human capital or productivity to make $30,000 a year as a full-time worker, you can’t be a part of the labor force.”

Such a policy will have a chilling effect on immigration and economic opportunities of low-skill immigrants. In fact some conservative activists, like Ron Unz, support raising the minimum wage explicitly as a mechanism to deter immigration and reduce the economic opportunities for low-skill immigrants.

I think the American Dream should be open to anyone. Requiring every job to have the skills, experience and education to make $30,000 will exclude millions of low-skill immigrants from the American Dream. It will also keep those with of us with diverse backgrounds, limited education, and yes, even sometimes limited abilities, out of the work force. There are a lot of ways to help those in need, through both public and private action, but no one is being helped by not having the opportunity to work. I don’t question the intentions of those who advocate for a $15 minimum wage, but as policy, should one focus on intentions or results?

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RYAN FORD sits on the Burbank Water and Power board and is a member of the 43rd Assembly District Republican Central Committee.


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