In the United States, debate rages on whether the minimum wage is a livable wage.
In Stillwater, a college town where many students rely on minimum-wage jobs to get by, many workers and some business owners say it’s time for a pay raise.
Balancing the books on minimum wage can be difficult, particularly for students. Savannah Basco, a student at Oklahoma State University, works two jobs to support herself while going to school, and she said she fully supports raising the minimum wage.
“I think, for the most part, (the current minimum wage) is unrealistic,” Basco said. “My cost of living is really cheap compared to other places in the country, and I still struggle to make ends meet with two jobs. So, thinking about other students who have higher rent and are making $7.25, I just don’t see how it’s possible.”
The minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour, and it hasn’t gone up since 2009, although the number of workers who actually make the minimum continues to decline, to 2.3 percent of all workers in data released from 2017.
President Joe Biden made a campaign promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, however the Senate removed the measure to raise the minimum wage from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Biden signed March 10.
The debate hasn’t gone away.
Basco works as a barista at Aspen Coffee Co. and makes minimum wage. She has the opportunity to make more through tips, but she said tips are inconsistent and vary wildly. That’s why she has a second job at Tropical Smoothie Café.
Basco works 25 hours per week at Aspen and 15 hours per week at Tropical Smoothie on top of her school responsibilities. She said her workload has made it difficult to focus on classes and assignments, which is why she decided to take this semester as a “break semester” and enrolled in only one class. She said a higher minimum wage would help, and she said she hopes Congress revisits the issue soon.
“I think (Congress) should keep in mind the people that are actually working these jobs,” Basco said. “A lot of (Congress members) probably haven’t worked for minimum wage before. Not for long periods of time, at least. It can be incredibly difficult to pay all of the bills just with that wage. So I think they should keep in mind all of the people who are affected by that.”
Basco isn’t alone in seeking a wage increase.
Matt Ring, an employee at Big Country Liquor, said he supports raising the minimum wage because people can’t support themselves on it.
Ring, another OSU student, said his parents help him with rent and bills, and he works mostly for spending money. He said he knows how lucky he is to have financial support from his family, and he said he doesn’t think he would be able to get by without it on his $9.50 per hour wage.
“People who aren’t fortunate enough to have family members pay for their rent or their insurance or their phone and stuff like that, (the minimum wage is) definitely not livable,” Ring said. “I think it should be raised to a more livable wage so that more people can afford to have basic needs and not have to live in poverty.”
Several Stillwater business owners said they believe a minimum wage increase is probably due, yet some said they don’t support Biden’s proposed $15 minimum wage.
Chad Watkins, the owner of DuPree’s Sports and Screenprinting, said he supports raising the minimum wage, but he said he thinks a $15 minimum wage is excessive, especially in light of the hardships businesses have faced because of the pandemic.
DuPree’s retail store closed for one month at the beginning of the pandemic, while it maintained its online operations. Watkins has had to deal with supply shortages, and foot traffic in the store has been slower since DuPree’s reopened. Not wanting to let any employees go, Watkins has had his workers focus on doing chores to spruce up the store, such as repainting.
Watkins’ part-time employees, most of whom are students, make minimum wage upon hiring, but he said most of his part-time employees make $8 per hour. Most of his full-time employees are salaried. Watkins said he is supportive of raising the minimum wage, but added he thinks a $15 federal minimum wage is too high.
“I think the minimum wage should go up,” Watkins said. “It’s been $7.25 for probably 10 years now, and it’s probably due to go up. I just don’t think it should double.”
Although Watkins said he doesn’t think a $15 minimum wage is necessary, he said if customers are willing to pay more for his products to offset the cost of raising the wage, then he will support it.
That seems to be the complicated offset to simply legislating a minimum wage increase – pushing the cost on to customers, especially for employers with small profit margins. Somebody has to pay for it, and it’s not always the employer.
John Franzmann, the owner of Brown’s Bottle Shop, said doubling the minimum wage would be harmful to his business, especially given the economic conditions the pandemic has caused.
“COVID has created all kinds of issues with cash stream,” Franzmann said. “Each day has been a new challenge.”
Like Watkins, Franzmann has dealt with supply shortages damaging his business, although he has never had to close his store. Franzmann said he is fully opposed to a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, but said he would be open to the state raising the minimum wage.
Franzmann said he believes the minimum wage is an issue better left to state legislatures because the cost of living is different in every state. He said a $15 minimum wage might be necessary in California, but he said he doesn’t believe it’s necessary in Oklahoma.
“I don’t mind creeping minimum wage up a little bit here and there...,” Franzmann said. “But to force every business owner in the country to suddenly double their potential payroll is – there’s not too many business that can just do that without having all kinds of catastrophic results within the cash stream of their business.”
Watkins agreed states should be in charge of the minimum wage.
Basco said she knows a $15 minimum wage would be hard on businesses, and like Franzmann and Watkins, she said she doesn’t think that high of a wage is necessary in Oklahoma.
Maybe a compromise?
Basco said the minimum wage needs to go up, allowing $12 per hour would be a good starting place.
She said she knows for sure $7.25 per hour is not enough.
“I definitely think (the minimum wage is) too low as of right now,” Basco said. “And I think people, when they’re discussing the topic, should be compassionate for the people that are working these jobs.”