Free-Range Employees

By: Scott Harris
Posted: 05/26/2014

Free-Range Employees


My wife and I recently visited a local, non-chain restaurant for dinner, and couldn't help but overhear the couple next to us as they prepared to order.


A woman wanted to know if the cows had been grass fed. While I briefly wondered if that was only legally available in a few states, I know that "grass fed"-along with free-range chickens, locally grown produce and organically grown-is one of the newer restaurant buzz terms for healthy, happy, environmentally friendly farming and ranching.


Implied in these offerings is that the food is safer, healthier, better for the environment and good for the local economy.


Also understood is that you will generally pay a premium to enjoy these meals over the big-business, mass-produced, happiness-of-the-animal-be-damned establishments.


It is the free market at its best. We get to vote with our pocketbook. These options cost you a bit more, but they are better for you, the environment and the community, so it's an investment worth making.


While we enjoy these foods and the feelings that come with putting our money where our mouths are, there is a much more important conversation I have never heard at a local restaurant.


Many of the people who pick the food locally, who bus the tables we eat at and wash the dishes we eat on are paid federal minimum wage.


We can debate all day long about whether or not it's the government's place to raise that minimum, or to have a minimum at all.


But there can be no argument about whether or not someone can even come close to living off of that wage.


The federal government reports that it takes at least $22,000 a year for a family of four to stay out of poverty.


A study for Community Economic Development shows that a minimum of more than $70,000 a year is required for a family of four to live a modest lifestyle.


A busboy working 40 hours a week at $7.25 an hour and working 51 weeks in a year makes less than $15,000 a year-about $1,200 a month. It is difficult for me to imagine anyone arguing that this is a "living wage."


Let's set aside the role of the federal government in establishing minimum wage. Instead, how about some  owners agree to pay their workers a bit more, maybe a minimum of $10-12 an hour.


Then, put up a sign in their window next to the ones that show they're concerned about chickens, carrots and cows. This sign will say, "Our lowest-paid employee earns a minimum of $TBD."


I'm not certain what raising the hourly wage of a few employees will do to the overhead, but I would certainly be willing to pay a bit more to ensure that human beings can live a decent lifestyle.


That has to be worth as much to us as a society as free-range chickens. The first restaurant to do this is guaranteed of my patronage and I'm willing to bet that quite a few others would join in.


I'm all for happy, emotionally fulfilled cows and chickens, but how about we offer some support and gratitude for the people doing tough jobs and the employers who are willing to pay them more than what is simply legally required.
Perhaps we can call it the moral minimum wage, instead of the federal mandated minimum wage.

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