The Billings Outpost

Then and now, tough to live on minimum wage

GUEST COLUMN

Jim Elliott

“Jim,” Mr. Cooley said to me, “we treat all our help alike here, white or colored, it doesn’t matter to us” (this was in the South in 1960).

So far, so good, I thought, until I realized that Cooley basically meant that he was an equal opportunity exploiter. He went on to outline the job benefits: 50 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, six days a week (no overtime), lunch and dinner included, 10 minutes for lunch, 15 for dinner, and that included the time it took to put your meal together.

“Ay-yi-yi!” I thought, but it was the only job in the small resort town, and I took it. I was now head pearl-diver (dishwasher) at Cooley’s Box o’ Chicken in Briney Breezes, Florida.

I don’t know how many of you have worked minimum wage jobs, but if you have, you’ll know it is no walk in the park. Cooley was paying only one half of the 1960 minimum wage, but to prove he was an otherwise honest man, he took out taxes and social security from the paycheck. I grossed 30 bucks a week; I took home $24.50.

On the upside, slim as it was, I got my meals, didn’t have a car, and my only major expense was rent at $20 a week. So I had $4.50 a week reserved for pure pleasure, $3.50 of which went for cigarettes (yeah, I was a chimney). And since I was so tired at the end of my shift, I slept most of the time, anyway.

Even the legal minimum wage and a standard 40 hour week with a take home of $33 looked like a good deal to me, but not by much. Granted, prices were a lot lower in 1960, but minimum wage still barely cut it for a single man, and really didn’t work for a family.

I worked for Mr. Cooley as long as it took to find another job (at minimum wage) and quit “Cooley’s Box o’ Chicken” about three months later. When I gave notice, Mr. Cooley — I swear this is true — told me I was crazy to leave “a good job like this” and I should see a psychiatrist.

I skipped the psychiatrist, which with my weekly take home of 24 bucks was beyond my ability to pay, and hired on as a busboy at the Delray Beach Hotel. The Delray had seen better days, but it looked good to me, and my take home pay was about 10 bucks more.

Today, that 40 bucks gross I was happy to get in 1960 would be about $325 a week — eight bucks an hour, and sure enough, today’s minimum wage in Montana is $8.05. But I can tell you one thing, for nothing, 40 bucks in 1960 or 325 bucks in 2015 is not enough money to do anything but survive on — barely.

Today, eight years after the start of the Great Recession, job growth continues and we once again are close to having what economists call “full employment,” meaning that “all available labor resources are being used in the most economically efficient way” (definition thanks to investopedia.com). Whether or not you agree with that, with the unemployment rate at 5.4 percent (full employment is between 5 percent and 5.2 percent), it is at full employment that the labor market can command higher wages, and thus wages should now be rising. However, they aren’t.

My guess is that people who have jobs are scared to ask for salary increases, having just come off the worst economic roller coaster ride in 90 years. But even as profits are up in most industries, employers haven’t felt a need to increase wages. That’s too bad, especially because it would work to employers’ advantage.

Henry Ford, who was not known as a spendthrift, decided to pay his employees $5 a day at a time when average wages were half of that. Businessmen thought he would go broke — in fact, hoped for it so they wouldn’t have to raise their own employees’ wages. But as a result of Ford’s decision, worker efficiency improved, turnover decreased, and employee loyalty increased. Even paying twice as much as other manufacturers, Ford’s operating costs fell. Ford called it, “One of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made.”

A word to the wise, as they say.

Jim Elliott is a former state legislator from Trout Creek.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 May 2015 15:06

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