Minimum Wage Yields Minimum Coverage: Connecting The Election Dots

Like most people, the upcoming elections weigh heavy on my mind these days. Unfortunately, watching the debates is less than inspiring, if not disheartening. As always, political rhetoric rules and meaty discussions about how policies affect real people are, for the most part, non-existent.

If one is poor, middle class, a person of color, or an immigrant, you may be “alluded to” but rarely are issues of great concern discussed with any depth. This is unsettling–to say the least–and something that should give pause to democrats, liberals, leftists, independents and yes, even those republicans displeased with the current administration.

Like many people, when I need to think about things without interruption, I go for a ride in my car–without my cell phone. On just such a recent outing, while cruising down the freeway pondering what the November election will yield, I sense something awry with my car. As I switch on the blinker to pull into one of those quick-lube service stations, I muse on how wonderful it is that one can decide on a moment’s notice to get an oil change on a lazy Sunday morning.

The shop is abuzz with activity but there are only two mechanics on duty and I am cordially solicited for patience. Filled with the feeling of immense fortune and privilege to live somewhere with so many conveniences, I clutch my latte, spread out the New York Times in the front seat and prepared to pass the time enjoyably.

All is going smoothly until one of the mechanics, Jim, receives a phone call from what sounds like a telemarketer, or perhaps a bill collector. Exasperated, the handsome man in his late thirties grips a crescent wrench and barks through the phone, “Didn’t I tell you I work the whole work week (emphasizing the word ‘whole’);? I don’t have time for this! What day is this? Yes, it’s Sunday and I work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Jim continues to punctuate all the days of the week to illustrate that he works “every” day–no exceptions–and he does not like being bothered at work.

Even I, who normally cast spells on unwelcome callers who interrupt my dinner, feel pity for the stranger. Destiny has unwisely collided their fates and I envision the pained look of surprise, disappointment and perhaps humiliation on the caller’s face. I console myself that telemarketers are probably accustomed to enduring the wrath of those who don’t like being bothered by strangers–at home or at work.

Embarrassed to overhear such a personal and contentious exchange, I delve more deeply into the NY Times book reviews. But it only gets worse. After loudly enunciating the working days of the week–all of them– Jim says, “So how am I supposed to have the time to come pick you up and go to the movies? You tell your momma, when I say I work the ?whole work-week,ยน that’s what that means. Now quit calling me, son. I told you: I’ll see you when I have a day off.”

It takes several moments to digest this disturbing declaration. The face of a seasoned telemarketer instantly morphs into a young boy who wants nothing more than to be with his dad on a weekend.

Since Sunday, I have endeavored unsuccessfully to unwrap Jim’s words from my mind and create a distance from the larger implications. I was informed that because of Jim’s valuable skills, he receives approximately $6.85 an hour and could work his way up to customer service representative to earn $7.50. This means that currently, after working a 40-hour work week, Jim grosses $274 If he were to receive overtime pay (which is unlikely these days) Jim might receive an extra $164 — for working a 56-hour week.

No wonder Jim doesn’t have time for his son. And taking him to the movies once a week would take almost 10% of his base salary.

According to the AFL-CIO, economic experts who have examined the declining value of the dollar have determined that any job paying less than $8.47 is paying poverty-level wages. Like millions of Americans who cannot subsist on a 40-hour week, Jim is earning poverty wages. During the last four years, the Bush administration has fought against raising the minimum wage and has complicated the mechanism that allows minimum wage workers to receive overtime pay–while making it easier for employers to avoid paying time-and-a-half. At least John Kerry has proposed raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.00 by the year 2007. Although it is a modest proposal–and by some considered, only a token gesture– it at least indicates an understanding of the gross inequities suffered by an enormous segment of our population.

And what will happen to Jim’s son? How will he fare with a father who is too stressed out and overworked to spend time with him, and with a president whose actions confirm he is more concerned with offering tax breaks to millionaires rather than raising his dad’s salary?

Will Jim’s son act out his frustration in school in a violent way and be ensnared by the zero tolerance policy being enforced in Nashville high schools (a policy not unique to Nashville)? Will the penalty of a 10-day suspension really help someone like him, or will it give him10 more days to think about how much time his father doesn’t have for him? And if, heaven forbid, Jim’s son finds himself involved in a violent crime, would trying him as an adult (a popular and growing trend in U.S. criminal courts) somehow solve the problem and make us all sleep better?

Yes, in this election it matters who you vote for and how you connect the dots between policies, ideologies and people–and yes, however microscopic it feels at times, there are differences.

It matters what the minimum wage is–even for those who have achieved professional status, and make six-figure incomes and receive top-of-the-line health care. It matters because, whether we admit it or not, issues like minimum wage policies reveal a great deal about the parties involved and the perceived value of unskilled workers in this country. But more importantly, issues like minimum wage permeate every aspect of our collective lives from healthcare costs, education and crime.

For those who haven’t already made up their minds about who to vote for in the upcoming presidential election–if there really are such people–instead of voting for policies that you believe benefit you directly on November 2nd, listen and reach beyond the rhetoric. Make the connections between the policies being promoted, those who benefit from them and the fall-out for those whose lives are most affected as a result. The minimum wage is one of many critical issues being shortchanged during this election.

After my oil change is complete, Jim walks in my direction. Seemingly embarrassed and clearly aware the entire shop has overheard his conversation, he says, “Kids! They want everything but they don’t understand you have to make choices.”

And so do we all, Jim.

Molly Secours is a freelance writer/speaker and radio talk-show host in Nashville TN. She can be reached at: www.steveconn.com/molly

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