Insurance and Government

NOTIONS: A taste of political cynicism served at minimum wage

August 7, 2006

I eat out a lot. Heck, I eat out more than I eat in. So I'm something of a restaurant whiz. From locals to chains, fast food to fancy fare, I can tell you who serves what, how well and for how much.

But until my friend Cheri read a book called "Nickel and Dimed," in which author Barbara Ehrenreich recounts a first-person social experiment working low-wage jobs, I never asked a waiter or waitress about the going rate for front-of-the-house food-service work.

I have now. And while I've heard a few cents-per-hour variation in the standard formula, I've learned that the going rate for restaurant servers in Indianapolis is $2.13 an hour-plus tips, of course.

And while a 20-percent tip might prove lucrative at some high-falutin steakhouse where dinner for two runs $150, it's a tough way to scrounge a living where the burgers cost $2.50 a pop and the family of four leaves the waiter two bits.

When Cheri and I repeatedly heard the $2.13 figure, we wondered why. It's an odd number, after all, those 13 dangling cents. So we asked some servers. They said they weren't sure; they just knew it had been the going rate for a long time.

So I looked it up.

Seems that $2.13 an hour is bottom-ofthe-barrel pay legally allowed for tipped employees by the "Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, As Amended." In other words, here in 21st-century affluent America, it's the federal minimum wage for folks who can receive tips.

And it hasn't gone up in nine years.

Neither has the general minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, nor the "youth" minimum wage of $4.25 per hour, which can be paid to people under 20.

The law's background section says the minimum wage was established to help ensure the "minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers."

But as an employer annually paying tens of thousands of dollars to cover the lion's share of Anthem insurance premiums for two dozen colleagues and their families, I can tell you that $2.13 an hour-or $5.15 an hour-won't buy you much health, efficiency or even well-being.

I had starvation-er, minimum wage on the brain last week when I saw a news headline flash by on the Web. At first glance, it seemed that the U.S. Congress-granters of frequent wage increases for members of the U.S. Congress-would actually support a long-overdue increase for America's lowest-wage earners.

But alas, what I'd seen wasn't statesmanship but gamesmanship.

I've often written admiringly of elected officials in this space. I've applauded officeholders on both sides of the partisan aisle who sacrifice anonymity, personal time and the oft-higher incomes of the private sector to do, for some portion of their working lives, the public's business.

But fie on alleged public servants who more highly regard the thrusting of knives into their opponents' backs than the advancing of the people's interests.

The latest minimum wage stratagem is a case in point. It seems that Republican members of the U.S. Senate-longtime blockers of a minimum-wage increase-suddenly proposed the very thing they've opposed for nine years.

But wait.

Rather than float the issue on its own merits, they tacked it onto a bill that would provide lucrative tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

This, of course, forces Democrats to either vote against the minimum-wage increase they've long sought, or to support along with it even higher federal deficits and even greater disparity between the richest and poorest Americans.

As The Baltimore Sun opined in an Aug. 1 editorial, "After nine long years, a much-needed increase in the federal minimum wage is finally on the fast track on Capitol Hill. But the price was a devil's bargain that paired a $2.10-per-hour pay boost for workers earning less than $11,000 a year with an estate-tax exemption for couples worth up to $7 million." A devil's bargain, indeed. Such cynicism is the stuff that led my late wife-a veteran of Michigan statehouse journalism-to despise politics. It's also the stuff that keeps many potentially great candidates from seeking office. They simply don't want to wade in mud that deep.

And so we find ourselves in the wacky world of government: Because the governor of Indiana is a Republican with re-election potential, Statehouse Democrats-traditional advocates of bluecollar jobs-battle to block a $3.85 billion toll-road lease that will provide thousands of blue-collar jobs for years to come.

And because the mayor of Indianapolis is a Democrat with statewide office potential, Indiana Republicans-traditional advocates of streamlined, lowercost, home-rule government-battle to block legislation that would reduce the bloated bureaucracy and save taxpayers millions.

At $2.13 an hour for my writing time, you may now chew on $4.26 worth of food for thought. The tip is entirely up to you.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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