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Dissent: Pay the Real Minimum

The dispute at Insomnia highlights our national need for a higher minimum wage

By Kevin A Hazlett

Just over two weeks ago, four Insomnia Cookies employees, citing allegations that the management violated labor regulations, staged what one striker described as an occupation of the store. These employees have since been fired, but their protest continues—now joined by the Industrial Workers of the World—against the practices of the Insomnia Cookies management. In addition to complaints that Insomnia Cookies did not provide the legally mandated one-hour break for shifts longer than eight hours and that it failed to pay delivery drivers the minimum wage, the former workers rallied for higher wages, health care benefits, and the ability to unionize. The Insomnia Cookies protest attests to the poor working conditions in the fast-food industry and highlights the need for a more realistic minimum wage commensurate with the living wage.

Across the country, fast-food workers from New England as well as from the South and West have recently joined in protest against the low wages endemic in the fast-food industry. Noting that the median wage of a full-time fast-food worker falls 30 percent short of the official poverty budget and opting instead for the term “starvation wage,” experts contend that the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with productivity and inflation. As a result, low-wage workers have actually suffered a decrease in quality of life.

These findings are corroborated by the MIT Living Wage Project, which puts the “living wage”—the minimum wage an individual needs to support herself—at $12.62 and $12.29 in Cambridge and Middlesex County respectively for a one-adult household. This means that working full-time (40 hours per week) at $9 an hour, the Insomnia Cookies cashiers and bakers would not even be able to sustain even the most austere lifestyles, let alone be given any opportunity to escape poverty. It’s hardly an exaggeration to call it a “starvation wage” when it forces workers to choose between necessities to somehow make ends meet.

This debate comes at a time when low-paying industries are experiencing some of the most rapid economic growth. Although these industries make up 39 percent of American jobs, they took a lion’s share 61 percent of national job growth in July. That low-paying jobs are fueling the majority of job growth means an increasingly polarized market for wages and a rapidly eroding middle class. With many of the economy’s new jobs offering little more than a “starvation wage,” it is time to rethink the minimum wage and take action to make it commensurate with the living wage advocated by the MIT Living Wage Project.

Overwhelmingly—by a ratio of four to one—the American public supports doing just this. In a July poll by Hart Research Associates, 80 percent of respondents answered that the federal minimum wage should be increased to $10.10 an hour—a 39 percent increase—and a majority support making the federal minimum wage an “important priority” for Congress over the course of the next year. This consensus crosses typical party lines and boasts majority support among both Republicans (62 percent) and those earning over $100,000 per year (79 percent). While Congress lags far behind taking any action toward increasing the minimum wage, and while minimum wage workers struggle to survive on real wages lower than 1968 minimum, the American public is firm in its support for a sustainable minimum wage.

Many experts, too, join in support with the American public. From a 2011 paper linking an increase in the minimum wage to an increase in domestic consumer spending, to a 2010 study finding no negative employment effects associated with an increase in the minimum wage, to further claims that increasing the minimum wage could cause a slight increase in the wages of those earning just above the minimum, new economic research is contending with the long-held notion that the minimum wage acts principally as a distortionary force against employment. And in a recent poll of economic experts, a plurality agreed that increasing the minimum wage to $9 per hour and indexing it to inflation “would be a desirable policy” for minimum-wage workers.

Whether Insomnia Cookies’ labor practices followed regulations, the ensuing protests have rightfully drawn attention to the minimum wage. It is increasingly apparent that the “minimum wage” and the “minimum for survival” wage are not one in the same. The former is the minimum under state or federal law that an employer may pay to his or her employees; the latter is what a worker needs to purchase basic necessities—clothing, rent, food—in order to live. A living wage is not a lofty goal of equality, or even of near-equality, but instead a basic expectation that we guarantee each worker the same right to live on his or her income.

Kevin A. Hazlett ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Lowell House.

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