Kids just can’t catch a break on the prairie. Nebraska is currently considering a youth minimum wage that almost exactly parallels the kid-exploiting, voter-disrespecting Senate Bill 177 passed by the South Dakota Legislature this grim winter. The Nebraska bill, currently enjoying strong support in its legislature, would cut the minimum wage by a dollar for workers under 18. The Nebraska bill fiddles with an increase to $9.00 approved by voters in the 2014 general election. And just like South Dakota’s Newspeak legislators, supporters of the Nebraska bill say cutting wages is about increasing “opportunity”:
Mike Brown, who owns Adams Super Foods, said the lower pay for students makes sense for small business owners who can only afford to hire a few employees. If the minimum wage is $9, Brown said he’ll hire workers who “can do it all,” including tasks like selling alcohol and tobacco that are off-limits to minor employees.
“It is tough out there. It is absolutely tough,” Brown said. “But it’s an awful lot of money to pay a 15 year old that can’t do everything a 19 or 20 year old or middle-aged person could do.”
Sen. Merv Riepe, of Omaha, supports the lower student wage but acknowledged views on the issue are shaped by personal experiences. Riepe notes he had the financial ability to encourage his son to take lower-paying internships, which paid off in valuable career experience.
“I wanted it to be an opportunity for kids to get jobs,” he said. “I’m not trying to blow apart the minimum wage increase” [Anne Gronewold, “Minimum Wage Cut? Nebraska Teens Say They Need the Money,” AP via Kearney Hub, 2015.05.04].
I hear this argument from folks on the petition-drive trail regularly, that kids are somehow worth less, and that their ignorance and indolence mean they deserve a lower threshold of protection for their rights as laborers. But if we can make such a judgment about an entire class of laborers based solely on age, why cannot we apply the same judgment to adult workers who appear to be dumb or lazy? Call it the “Meathead Minimum Wage”—if an applicant looks stupid or laggardly, the employer can give that applicant an opportunity but pay a buck or two under standard minimum wage. Or why don’t we say that, since women in general can’t lift as much weight as men, we’re going to enact a “Delicate Flower of Womanhood Minimum Wage” for industries involving any sort of physical labor?
Rules like that erode the very concept of a minimum wage, the idea that we shall accord to every human being in the workforce the same fundamental dignity, a minimum wage to compensate for the time and liberty that every person sacrifices by punching in to take the boss’s orders. We allow all sorts of additional pay for performance, experience, and extra skills. We allow employers to fire those workers who cannot meet minimum standards of performance (or, in South Dakota, we let employers fire workers for mostly no reason at all). But all workers shall get at least X, no matter what they look like, no matter when they were born, and no matter what you think of them.
Let’s keep it simple, and let’s keep it moral: one minimum wage for all, one standard level of labor protection for everyone we allow to work, even the ones some people think are knuckleheads.