I work for free!

I work for free!

In my early twenties, while attending college and then grad school, I began to work part time for a local pub in Annapolis, MD; Riordan’s Saloon. Closed now, Riordan’s was for 30 years a mainstay in historic Annapolis. Both a pub and a restaurant, it was owned by former NBA star Mike Riordan. The food was good, the atmosphere better, and it was patronized by both tourists and residents.

It was good extra money and fairly easy work as well. I started on the door and later progressed to busing tables as well. My job? Open the door for patrons, smile, and welcome them into the restaurant. When they were on their way out, I opened the door again, smiled again, and thanked them for visiting. Sodas were on the house and I was allowed one meal per shift. After I turned 21, I was also allowed one beer at the end of each shift.

Overall, it was a great job working with a great boss who was able to make a living for himself in an industry that historically has one of the thinnest profit margins of any. And on top of making his own living, he helped numerous men and women over the years to make their own living and to learn one of the most important skills any person can learn; how to serve customers.

My pay while working there was, of course, minimum wage. With the bonus perk of a meal for each shift I worked. And that worked for me. After all, I was opening and closing a door, and at times carding young people who were heading in to drink at the bar. How much is that worth to a restaurant? For Mike Riordan, it was something that made his patrons feel welcome and helped him insure his restaurant did not serve alcohol to those who were under age.

The ones who waited tables, they were the ones who earned a living for themselves. But if you know anything about waiting tables, you know how hard this job can be.

America may be the only country in the world where people get violent because someone forgot to put pickles on their fast food hamburger. Waiting tables in a popular establishment, with a long line of hungry patrons waiting to be seated, can be downright brutal. Good waiters and waitresses earn their pay, as do bartenders and chefs in some nicer restaurants. They can make a career of the job if they wish. For the rest of us, it’s a starter job where we earn some money, learn about working for a living, and prepare to do something with our lives. And in an industry where competition is huge and profit-margins thin, it allows both chain and family-owned restaurants to survive.

So, what will happen if the union-promoted “Living Wage” is adopted by states? Jobs such as the one I had, working the door and busing tables, will go away. So will many restaurants. For the restaurants and fast food chains that survive, they’ll be forced to raise prices, cut back on the number of workers in favor of automation, and will suffer from greater workforce turnover than they do already.

The thought that low-skilled labor deserves the kind of pay afforded to those who spend years training and working to become great at what they do is silly. A mandated “Living Wage” of $15 an hour would mean fewer jobs for everyone, not more jobs and more pay. Even minimum wage can put a strain on restaurants and fast food chains. The Living Wage would shove many of those businesses right off the fiscal cliff, and their employees with them.

Yet there are many who sincerely believe that a government-mandated Living Wage would be a boon to the country. Their argument is that, with higher pay, people will buy more, pay higher taxes, and add more to the economy. At the say time, it is argued, they will have a higher quality of life.

But how does this work in an industry with razor thin profit margins? It’s not the unions or the government that will pay these wages, it’s a private business that is forced to pay. It is, in effect, an unfunded mandate. And the result of that unfunded mandate will not be the same job at $15 an hour. It will be, for most low-skilled workers, no job at all. For workers with more skills it will mean greater competition for jobs because there will be fewer of them available. The jobs they do manage to get will be less stable over time with fewer benefits.

For patrons, it will mean higher costs. The result is they’ll be less likely to go out to eat and when they do go out, they’ll be even more cost conscious than they are now. That too will negatively impact the restaurant industry.

So all the fantasies of worker nirvana brought about by a state-mandated Living Wage are just that; fantasies. The reality, should such a movement ever be successful, would be a nightmare, not a dream come true. Welcome to Reality 101.