Describe the typical minimum wage worker. It may not be who you think.

Greg Markley

By Greg Markley

In the 1970s, regarding wages and benefits, the youngest of three brothers (me) ended up with a nice supermarket job as his first job. When I worked eight hours, I had a ½ hour lunch plus two 15-minute breaks. I enjoyed my job as a bagger and cashier; I stayed there four years. I made about $1 over minimum wage, in 1972.

The Burger Chef where my brother Larry worked for a whisper more than the minimum wage folded a few months after a new burger place from California moved next door. Its name: McDonald’s. Larry then worked at a convenience store. At least he had a job: if someone stayed at the market, Almacs, within 15-20 years he or she would be out of work. The union-induced benefits that I loved undermined Almacs’ bottom-line.

The above is a cautionary tale in two ways. One is that you never know when a new competitor waving Big Macs at customers will run you out of business (Larry found out). And, you may find a job with great benefits disappears because those benefits hurt the company’s competitiveness (Almacs employees learned this). All businesses are well aware of their bottom line; thus, minimum wage increases and too-generous benefits are not praised by store owners.

In 2021, federal minimum wage is $7.25; Alabama is one of only 21 states that maintain the federal minimum of $7.25. Gina Maiola, press secretary to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, explained that the governor is focusing on job training and workforce development to help people get better paying jobs. She noted that this approach benefits both employer and employee.

“By forcing employers to pay more than they can afford through a minimum wage hike, it will either eliminate the number of employees, or the employers relocate,” she said. “The governor would agree the free market is a good regulator. Employers balance the bottom line to recruit qualified employees. Many Alabama jobs pay more than minimum wage, because we don’t have enough high-skilled workers, and they need to incentivize individuals to work in their organization.”
A recent study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that whereas more than a quarter of all low-wage workers were teenagers in 1979, in 2014 about one in 10 are teens. In addition, 37% of employees who get low wages, defined as less than $10.10 per hour (but almost $3 an hour more than federal minimum wage), are between 35 and 64 years old.

About 55% of minimum wage earners are women and among tipped workers – guaranteed just $2.13 an hour – there is a wide gulf, with women at 73 percent. According to MoneyWatch, the gender balance of low-wage recipients shifted from women since 1979. Men make up 45% of low-wage workers, with many women earning minimum wage or less.

The U.S. Department of Labor keeps statistics on federal minimum wage rates under the Fair Labor Standards Act, from 1938-2009. A sample of years during that 71 year period shows the minimum wage increased gradually, not dramatically. Under the 1938 Act, the minimum hourly wage was $0.25; within 18 years, it quadrupled to $1.00 (1956); and 18 years later (in 1974) the minimum was $2.00.

The next samples are from Jan. 1, 1979, the wage was $2.90 for all covered, nonexempt workers; by 1990 it went to $3.80; and the most recent increase came over three years, $5.85 in 2007, to $6.55 in 2008, and finally to $7.25 in 2009. Those new federal minimum wages applied to all covered, nonexempt workers, as usual.

Many job-seekers are strapped. They have family commitments or high bills for education or medical debts. They truly have little flexibility when they seek a job. I hope they are later able to get back on their financial feet and can pursue a career field of choice. They are like the teacher being interviewed by a principal who asked: “Do you believe in evolution or creationism?” The job seeker said, knowing he sorely needed the job, “I can teach it either way!”

For my second job, I did a bit of “politicking” (how appropriate for a Political Science major.) My friend was a security guard at the state’s premier newspaper. I waited four months for a copy boy job to open. The job paid $6 when the federal minimum wage was $2.90 (in 1978). I really took the job for the benefits. I had access to “newspaper clip files,” a Godsend when researching and writing college class papers.

There was no internet then to look things up and libraries were closed at night. I met many journalists and saw firsthand the pressures and joys of the job. As I wrote last week, I hope a compromise of $10 or $10.50 per hour is reached. Lower-paid employees would get more cash but small businesses would not be hurt as much as they would under a $15 an hour scenario.

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for eight  years.


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