Wage fight comes to Georgia

Only the strong needed to apply Thursday for the warehouse jobs posted at the Norcross unemployment office.

“Will perform repetitive work, stand, walk and bend for long periods of time,” the notice read. “Will carry up to 25-100 pounds frequently. Will lift up to 25-50 pounds, shoulder high, frequently.”

The temporary job pays $8 an hour.

Earlier that day, in Midtown Atlanta, fast-food employees and home-health workers rallied to more than double their wages. Most make $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage.

The rally and job fair, though separated by 20 miles, spoke in unison about the nature of work in Georgia’s post-recession economy. Both spotlighted low-wage work, and as the economy limps back, those jobs make up a larger percentage of Georgia’s workforce than before the recession.

Consequently, calls to raise the minimum wage resound loudly among workers and some politicians, who say it will help lift Americans out of poverty.

And it is sparking pushback by those who believe raising wages will hurt the economy.

Raising the minimum wage, they argue, is a job killer and raises costs for employers.

“A dramatic minimum wage increase to $15 is not the solution to relieve poverty,” said Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

In restaurants, for example, a large hike would mostly serve to eliminate jobs for young people and “entry-level” workers, Bremer said.

The argument over low wages is nothing new, but the voices have grown louder of late.

Globalization, the demise of factory work and union clout and the shift to temporary or contract workers have worked to depress wages in the last three decades. The 2007-2009 recession obliterated 8.5 million jobs nationwide and flipped many families into bankruptcy or foreclosure, and they are finding it tough to fight their way back.

Manufacturing and construction jobs were the big losers during the recession. And they paid an average of $61,637 a year, according to a recent study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

New restaurant, hotel and nursing jobs have predominated since the recession ended. Yet they pay, on average, 23 percent less than the jobs lost during the downturn.

“The picture of a breadwinner working on an assembly line has now been replaced by a breadwinner working on a cash register,” said Jack Temple, a policy analyst with the liberal National Employment Law Project (NELP). “There has been an economic restructuring. And the shift has been unequivocally bad for working families.”

The rise in temporary jobs further depresses wages. Roughly 2.5 percent of all U.S. jobs are classified as temporary — most with little security and without benefits — up from 1.4 percent in 1990, the BLS reports. And in metro Atlanta, over the last five years, only hospitals have created more jobs (11,000) than temp agencies (8,210).

Traditionally limited to administrative work, the temp industry has shifted headlong into once solidly blue-collar fields like manufacturing, transportation and warehousing. And “temp” is something of a misnomer, as Fortune 500 corporations keep temp workers employed for months and years at a time as a hedge against an economic downturn.

Overall, workers employed by staffing agencies earn 22 percent less than the average wage for all private sector workers, according to NELP. And low-wage workers — temp or otherwise — avail themselves disproportionately of food stamps, Medicaid and other taxpayer-financed services.

Few states have created as many low-wage jobs as Georgia.

A decade ago, about one in 33 Georgia workers made minimum wage. Today, that has risen to about one in 20.

Restaurants, for example, employed 7.2 percent of all Georgia workers a decade ago, BLS data shows. Today, 8.5 percent of all state workers are in that business. Many, like Joshua Collins, toil for $7.25 an hour.

Collins, 25, sat in the middle of Ponce de Leon Ave. on Thursday, blocking traffic outside a McDonald’s. He demanded a wage of $15 an hour, more than double his current cook’s salary at a nearby Burger King. Collins was the first demonstrator cuffed, arrested and marshalled into a Fulton County prisoner transport van.

“The fast-food corporations are making billions and billions of dollars and they can’t give us a raise?” he said in an interview before being hauled away. “We’re going to get our $15 an hour and a union. Something will come of this.”

For the first time, low-paid health care workers joined the protest, such as Latonya Allen, 45.

“Home care workers deserve $15 an hour just like fast-food workers. We do the dirty work, the hard work that no one else wants to do,” said Allen who is paid $9 an hour caring for a McDonough woman with cerebral palsy. “I have no retirement, no time off, no benefits, no paid vacation or sick days. But I am willing to fight for my rights. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Ten demonstrators were arrested for refusing police entreaties to quit sitting in the middle of the busy street.

The higher wage push is gaining steam with California (minimum $10 an hour), Massachusetts ($11), the District of Columbia and its Maryland suburbs ($11.50) and Seattle ($15) already requiring employers to pay workers more. San Francisco, Chicago and New York City are likely to follow suit.

President Obama, who supports a national minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, said last Monday that fast-food workers deserve a raise “so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity.”

A growing number of economists, though, say that raising the minimum wage benefits more than just low-paid workers. Standard & Poor’s, the financial research agency, reported last month that low-wage jobs fuel income inequality which is “a drag on long-run economic growth.” The ratings agency reduced its U.S. growth forecast from 2.8 percent to 2.5 percent over the next decade.

“The current level of income inequality in the U.S. is dampening GDP growth, at a time when the world’s biggest economy is struggling to recover from the Great Recession and the government is in need of funds to support an aging population,” S&P wrote.

Howard Mavity, a senior partner at Fisher and Phillips, an Atlanta firm that represents fast-food companies in labor disputes, agrees that the minimum wage should be raised a bit. A jump to $15 an hour, though, would put too much of a financial burden on franchise owners and not solve the impoverishment of low-wage workers.

“The purpose of the minimum wage is to try and help people get by,” Mavity said. “So if we only jack up the minimum wage, we won’t get at key structural issues facing the economy (like) better education and a trained workforce.”

There is a heated debate about how to improve the lot of American workers, but in general, there is agreement that more money is good for working people, for boosting the middle class and for the economy as a whole.

“When there are working people who can’t support their families, who can’t pay their rent, your whole community is going to suffer,”said NELP’s Rebecca Smith.

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