248-409-1900 dburke@mi-worklaw.com

By:  Bill Pilchak 4/10/14

There should be a motive for people who have mastered the challenges of flipping a hamburger

to move on to a more responsible position so that they contribute more to our society.

I noted President Obama’s visit to Michigan last week in an effort to increase the minimum wage to a level one can ostensibly live on ($10.00+) and the nationwide strikes of fast-food restaurants (seeking $15.00 per hour) with Shirley Megge in mind.  In the late 1950’s, after her marriage evaporated, Shirley was single-handedly raising two sons under the age of three and had a job on the sales floor at Crowley’s department store.   The minimum wage was $1.00 per hour then.  It’s unclear whether she earned more than minimum wage, or whether she was ever a full-time employee of Crowleys.  For certain she qualified for government- subsidized housing in Detroit’s Parkside “projects” adjacent to Chandler Park at Conner and Warren.

The low wages and governmental housing subsidy either weren’t enough to raise two boys or weren’t enough for Shirley.  Plus, the projects were a tough environment.  Shirley entered Wayne State University, got two years of education and moved on to a job at Michigan Bell Telephone Company that carried more responsibility and hence was worth more than minimum wage.   Shirley got out of the projects into a house one mile away, saved money for ten years and bought a 1000 square foot “palace” in a blue-collar suburb for $16,000.

Shirley was pleased when she became a “salaried” administrative assistant.  Her earnings were adequate, but didn’t allow for frills.  While she strove for higher positions, her boys delivered papers to earn their own spending money.  Eventually, the older son got a job at one of the first McDonald’s restaurants. He made minimum wage, which was then $1.25 an hour.  The younger son found a restaurant that would hire him at age 14 to wash dishes and buss tables for below minimum wage at $1.00 per hour.

The value of what the boys learned eclipsed the small paychecks.  They learned: one needs to show up when scheduled, that one needs to punch the time clock, that one must listen when instructed on a task because bosses and coworkers become irritated when one doesn’t follow rules, and procedures and instructions.  Mostly, though, the work environment demonstrated that those who hustled got more responsibility, more hours, higher pay and sometimes a share of a waitress’s tips if your hustle made her money.  The younger son was soon assigned more responsible tasks including back-room food preparation and all of the building maintenance.  The fact that he still made less than minimum wage didn’t bother him.  He was learning things that he would use for the rest of his life, and he was, after all, saving money to buy a car and for college.  Apparently oblivious to the fact that the short-order cook was the defacto “boss” of the premises in the absence of the manager and that customers didn’t want to see their steak grilled by a kid, he lobbied hard and was made a cook. He went on to consistently work 38 hours a week while in high school, either at or just above minimum wage, now saving for college.

Shirley insisted her boys go to college.  The older son got his degree in auto repair technology, started a business that has continuously employed the same three technicians and thus supported four families for twenty-five+ years.  Perhaps you guessed that the other went on to law school and became an employment lawyer, himself supplying jobs to others.

I shudder to think what would have happened if Shirley had deigned to stay in a sales position at Crowley and locked me into a life in the projects or even a mile away.  I thank God that she always had her “eyes on the prize” and set her boys’ sights the same.  By doing so, she transformed her own life, eventually worked in the legal department, married a respected engineer, retired and travelled the world, and taught her boys to assume as much responsibility that they could handle.

Clogging up entry level jobs with adults who intend to stay in them, instead of using them as a stepping stone to greater responsibility and societal worth presents a significant danger to society.  Nowhere is it more important to give a young person a job to teach fundamentals of going to work than in the lower socio-economic classes.   Nowadays, not only does the entry-level worker learn the basics of what is expected at work, but it may be the person’s first exposure to the role that technology plays in the work world.  Virtually every new experience in the work environment is a learning experience for someone who hasn’t worked before.  We need a training ground for people to enter the work world.  Why provide a disincentive to move on?  There should be a motive for people who have mastered the challenges of flipping a hamburger to take the next step so that their efforts are worth more to our society and so that they attain as much of the American Dream as they can.