By BEN R. WILLIAMS
I recently saw a photo making the rounds on social media, allegedly taken at a fast food restaurant in Henry County. The photo was of a drive-thru speaker with a sign taped to it. The sign read: “WE ARE TEMPORARILY CLOSED BECAUSE PEOPLE DO NOT SHOW UP FOR THE JOB THEY SIGNED UP FOR.”
I can’t swear that this photo was actually taken in Henry County; it could have been taken anywhere. Similar signs are popping up at fast food restaurants across the country.
You can imagine the comments on the photo. People expressed the view that folks today are lazy, that people love collecting unemployment more than working, that unemployment benefits are too high, and that something something entitled something something kids today something something.
My initial thought was, if I was the manager of a restaurant and no one showed up for work one day, I would not advertise that fact to the public, especially if I’m looking for employees. If I were on the job hunt, I wouldn’t send an application to a place where all the employees quit en masse.
My second thought was: well, no wonder.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, there currently exists a $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit for folks on unemployment, and this benefit is blamed for poor work ethics and sluggish job growth across the country. Critics of the benefit say that it’s far too much money and that all the lazy bums out there can make more money collecting unemployment than working a minimum-wage job.
They sure can.
While I’m no math whiz, it seems to me that $300 per week is equal to $1,200 per month, which is equal to $14,400 per year, give or take. That’s better than a stick in the eye, but it’s not exactly living high on the hog.
Meanwhile, here in Virginia, the minimum wage rose to $9.50 per hour as of May 1. Of course, if you’re making minimum wage, that means you’re more than likely not working 40 hours per week, because then you’d be entitled to benefits, and that sort of thing really does a number on the profit margins. Let’s be charitable and say someone is making $9.50 an hour and working 30 hours per week.
I plugged that information into a handy-dandy tax calculator I found online, and once you deduct federal income tax and social security, our hard-working fast food employee is making a grand total of $13,459.27 annually, nearly a grand less than the guy collecting unemployment, who is also — in both a technical sense and a very real sense — utterly impoverished.
And of course, let us not forget that the federally-mandated minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. If that same fast food employee is unfortunate enough to be working in a state where he’s making $7.25 and working 30 hours per week, his annual take-home pay is $10,444.79. Since it’s no longer 1977, that’s a pretty pitiful haul.
Some would say that the guy collecting unemployment instead of working is lazy. I’d call him pragmatic. He’s making more money than the guy working in a fast food restaurant, and he’s also not getting exposed to COVID and having to deal with customers who treat him like garbage on a daily basis.
It’s absurd to say that $300 per week is too much money, and if anyone thinks it is, I would challenge them to attempt living on that amount. Even a single person with no outstanding debt would struggle to meet even the bare necessities: rent, food, a car, and a cell phone. And while the last two might not seem like necessities, they absolutely are. In many places, Henry County included, there isn’t the transportation infrastructure to get people to work without a car, and cell phones have become an expectation in virtually every facet of our modern lives. If you can’t place a phone call, send a text, or access the internet, you’re going to have a rough time finding or holding down a job.
The problem, of course, is that a whole lot of folks in this country are being paid starvation wages and they’re reaching their breaking point. What’s the point of hard work if the best you can hope for is to slip behind a little more slowly? Why try if there’s no incentive to get ahead? How do you even muster hope for a brighter tomorrow when you’re making peanuts and prices are inflating a little more with each passing day?
The simple fact of the matter is this: if fast food restaurants want folks to show up and make the burgers, they need to pay those folks enough to make it worth their while.
And if a business can’t afford to pay its employees a living wage, then it can’t afford to be in business.