What Everyone Gets Wrong About Minimum Wage

By Brett Spielberg, Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc.

The concept of a $15 minimum wage — a “living wage” — is lauded and decried by the same party lines that define almost every political or social concept in this country.

That said, there’s plenty of misinformation about what a living wage actually means. The soundbites are easy enough to digest, but they don’t do reality justice: One side says all workers deserve to earn a living and those that oppose this fundamental human right are money-hungry uber-capitalist oligarchs who are manipulating society to keep corporate profits up; the other side says socialists and communists have no place in our society and if you want to earn a real living, flipping burgers is NOT the correct career choice.

But none of this means anything at all. The concept of defining a uniform minimum wage is much more existential — in principle it would necessitate a fundamental change within society. By defining the bare minimum a worker can be paid, the market is forced to redefine every other salary and the cost of each and every commodity and service.

This, in idealistic theory, would force the mythical one percent of the one percent to actually trickle down their money to the rest of society, still keeping them rich beyond our wildest dreams while sort-of-kind-of-forcing them to “share the wealth.” It’s absolutely and unquestionably utopian.

The counterargument is as easy to make as swinging a tennis racket at a beach ball: Opponents of the minimum wage speak of Orwellian government intrusion into the free market — though they oddly don’t have a problem with Orwellian-like intrusions into women’s uterus’; everyone’s cellphones and bedrooms; and young people and minorities’ taste in music, art, culture, politics, etc.

A minimum wage forces employers to pay more money for labor. Employers are job creators, and they’re already burdened by so many things — like paying taxes and providing half-decent benefits. And when the average minimum wage in many places is closer to $5 an hour, a bump to $15 is a significant cost.

How about we take a break and do the actual math? The highest minimum wage proposed is the aforementioned $15. There are 37.5 hours in a full-time workweek (hey, don’t expect employers to pay for your lunch break!) and 52 weeks in a full year for a worker NOT taking a single day off.

That equates to: $15 x 37.5 hours a week = $562.50. Multiply that by 52 weeks — literally, someone working full-time without anything but the weekend off — and you get $29,250. On Long Island, that’s peanuts, especially when you consider a living income for an adult with one child is more than $55,000 per year.

Also: The argument that this is simply paying illegal immigrants more money is fundamentally wrong. If anything, this specifically creates jobs more financially-palatable for unemployed Americans; people will need to have working papers, so employers will be forced to pay workers appropriately and on the books.

Not that there aren’t several problems that need to be addressed when discussing minimum wage — the occupations that are exempted, for instance, including many professions that work with and care for people with disabilities, like home health aides, group home workers and day-hab direct support professionals.

The fact that fast-food workers are guaranteed a “living wage” and the people who care for societies most vulnerable are excluded flies in the face of logic on both sides of the aisle, and it’s nothing short of despicable that politicians managed to find ways to cut corners on an initiative this bold.

At its core, the idea for a livable minimum wage benefits all aspects of society. It raises workers’ wages that have long been stagnant while executive compensation has increased at an exponential pace.

But until elected leaders, advocates or journalists can present their case, the reality is the facts will be lost in the noise. Until someone can make sense of this for all sides — and undoubtedly make the needed tweaks and compromises — this will be nothing more than a state-by-state political stunt, that in many cases shuns some of the most universally praised segment of workers in our society in exchange for political points among unionized labor.