Friday, September 5, 2014

What Independent Contracting Has Taught Me About the Minimum Wage Battle

I work in IT. Despite having a 4 year degree, industry certs, and 8 years' experience in the area, very few employers will hire me to work in house IT. In fact, sadly, all of that often works against me, as I see people hired quite literally out of convenience store jobs into IT because the businesses want $10-12 an hour techs, they do not want $50K a year Network Administrators.

So I decided to go it on my own. Basically, I wind up going to many of those companies to troubleshoot what their nearly minimum wage IT staff cannot. And I do the back and forth dance with buyers over rates.

I am currently holding out against an employer who wants me to drive two hours, pickup a part, deliver it an hour away, wait in line for over an hour to clear security at the site, perform the work, and return home. Basically a minimum of five hours for the company, with a pay rate that nets me less than minimum once all is said and done.

And so I countered with what I needed. They refused.

This is a common scenario. They can pay more, they are authorized to pay more, but their job is to pay me as absolutely little as they can and still function. I've been on holdouts like this before. They will give the job to lesser experienced providers, and after a series of revisits or a provider who gets fed up with the demands of the assignments, will be shopping it out again. This same site has been shopping for consistent techs for the last four years.

Ultimately, though, they need to get the job done, and they will pay what they need to to make it happen.

I used to feel guilty about this, but eventually I realized this is how it works: you have two competing factions, one that will do whatever it takes to pay as little as they can, and you, who have to negotiate to make a livable wage. And yes, there is such a thing.

When this plays out on minimum wage jobs, though, the employee has little room to bargain. Business owners exploit this by paying as little as they can get away with and then complaining about the turnover. Well, a minimum wage worker cannot be expected to have ANY loyalty to their employer, as they have to negotiate the best rate they can (whether that means a better paying job, a job with less travel, or anything else that gives them an advantage). Doing that is doing THEIR job.

It's a delicate dance that shouldn't exist. Workers should never have to feel guilty about negotiating what they need to survive. And employers should never feel that squeezing that dollar harder is more important than protecting their most important assets: their employees. In fact, paying workers more helps retain quality employees by giving employers a competitive advantage in hiring.

I'm not sorry that I work as an independent contractor. It has its ups and downs, but the freedom is a payoff that has incalculable value. But it has taught me more about real world economics than any college course ever could. And it has taught me that making a fair and living wage will always be a struggle for the working class.

Friday, August 22, 2014

There Is No Single Point Solution In Ferguson, Because It's Not a Single Point Problem.

I have had a lot of discussions, some productive, some not, about the events in Ferguson. And it has occurred to me over time that one of the reasons we are disconnected in the discussion is that we are looking to a single point solution.

The problem is, there were multiple causes to this incident some of them are racial in nature, some not. Some valid points have been raised on both sides of the aisle, but all have focused on part of the solution to the neglect of the whole. But the truth is, for white America to speak to the Black community about their lack of responsibility without paying attention to a culture that consistently gives class and race preference would be premature, and carry with it the appearance of racism, if not the facts.

The truth is, one of the core problems in Ferguson is that it is not the inner city; it is a suburb. And the incident carries with it the frightening fact that the problems of the inner city are moving out to the suburbs, and the "ticky tacky" lifestyle is being confronted with the ugly realities of an urban culture.

We have a convenient past of shuttering ourselves away from our social problems rather than dealing with them. And in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, we have been able to bottle it away in the inner city, where unemployment and poverty historically run high. But over time, the residents of the inner city have been moving out, to try to build a better life.

To say that race is not a factor would be a display of blind ignorance, but to say that it is the only factor would be equally so. In examining the articles written on privilege, it's fair to note that many things written by middle class authors to describe "white privilege" are in fact, indicators of class privilege. But that doesn't change the reality that white privilege does exist, even for those of us who grew up lower on the socioeconomic landscape.

If you pressed me, I would pinpoint the following factors: poor police training, militarization of police forces, racial inequality, income inequality, lack of leadership, and media sensationalism. There are probably a few I am overlooking, but those factors, I believe, are significant. If we really want to resolve the issues in Ferguson, the best way to do it is to examine what role we can play in the solution. If the answer is "none", the best reply is silence.

For my part, I choose to address the inequality issues and leadership issues. I believe that inadequate leadership is a problem that affects our entire culture, not just the inner city, and that the only remedy is to speak to it and encourage those with leadership skills to give back and assist in developing them among the next generation. That's hard to do when you're working hand to mouth, but it's a better approach longterm.

If we continue to see Ferguson as indicative of JUST a racial issue, or JUST a police brutality issue, we are missing the point. And if we refuse to at least consider the valid points of those who wish to handoff liability entirely to the residents of communities like Ferguson, we won't get anywhere.

Blame is a hard thing to fix; culpability and responsibility can't be pinned down so easily. What happened in Ferguson is something we all need to pay attention to, and a problem we all should have a hand in solving.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why We Do Not GET the Race Issue

We want to believe we live in a post racial America. I want to believe we live in a post racial America, and for a long time that is exactly what I believed. I grew up largely in a community where I never saw racial tensions and struggle; yet the existence of the "black" high school made the past undeniable, even though it had closed some years before I started school.

It's easy to tell someone to "put aside" the crimes of the past, especially when you belong to the culture that perpetrated the injustice. But this is what I would like both sides of the debate to understand.

The problem is, we don't SEE white privilege. Most people in rural America's experience in the inner city is limited to a wrong turn on the freeway or a news article on CNN. We (meaning the royal "We"; I am trying very hard to change that on a personal level) shake our heads, lament the decline of good adult role models in the inner cities, and often simply write the whole region off as being full of thugs and gangsters. We don't see the part we play in the process.

We don't see how capitalism has caused the decline of the inner city, or how it becomes an issue that disproportionately affects minorities. We don't see how often the same conservative role models of minority race who lament the failings of their brothers and sisters in the inner city neglect opportunities to return to the inner city, to be mentors, to educate and lift those kids out of poverty. We have to subsidize teachers going into the inner city because that's a place that most teachers will not go.

When an inner city kid sees a white face, it's usually a cop, a social worker, or a judge. It's never someone wanting to truly connect, to truly speak to that kid as an equal, and as someone with worth and value. And I reject the evangelical outreaches that happen in that area, as I've seen the posts of some of those who attend those churches. While not all are outright slandering the residents of the inner city, very few have spoken up for them.

Perhaps in remembering Michael Brown, we should remember the de facto segregation that gave the kids of an inner city an unequal education system. We need to remember that we have an income inequality that is utterly frightening for a First World Nation, even one in as steep a decline as we are. We need to look to "blockbusting" strategies that devalued properties and left families in the inner city with nowhere to go.

It's all well and good to ask why families in the inner city don't get a job; it's a fairer question to ask "where are the jobs". To a kid in the inner city, the best way to make a living is to start working for the local dealer. There's nothing for them in the job market, even in the fast food joints, where they have to compete with older adults for scant jobs.

I won't pretend to know everything about the inner city. But I know enough to know that standing in a rural environment miles removed from that one and judging the actions of people in the inner city by my values is ignorant at best, racist at worst. I know that the problems go deeper than one incident involving a suspect and shooting, and I know that is why they are marching. The truth of the Michael Brown situation is not that he is innocent; the truth is that he did not deserve to be gunned down. Even affording Officer Wilson every benefit of the doubt, there are ways that he could have addressed the situation from the outset that would have left a better ending for everyone.

Maybe it's time that those of us outside the inner city start listening to those inside the inner city. There are people in the inner city with solutions for change. They need our help going forward.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I Believe the Problem with Racism in America is That it is Not Intentional

I admit it, I genuinely feel sorry for police chief Thomas Jackson.

I don't know him, but I believe he is genuine. I also believe he made a very serious misstep when he released the video of the convenience store robbery allegedly committed by Mike Brown simultaneously with Darren Wilson's name. I don't think it was malicious, but it looks calculated, and so often, appearance is everything.

But I believe what happened with Jackson is symptomatic of a problem we have in our culture: we don't want to believe we're racist, and yet unfortunately, racism may be embedded in our cultural DNA.

For the past 40 years, TV has been our reality. And TV has fed us a world where blacks exist as a very small minority, and Latinos and Asians exist nearly not at all. And you have to look extremely hard to find Native American characters on TV.

Movies are somewhat more diverse, but there is a decided difference in roles cast for ethnic stereotypes. You almost never see a minority CEO, and it's just as rare to see a caucasion drug lord (Walter White being a prominent exception). Even music has genres that typically fall along race lines.

If I look across the people I count as friends in this area, I see people who are overwhelmingly generous, loving, and caring individuals. People who would never consider themselves racist, and you would never consider to be racist. Yet when officials were trying to place refugees some years ago in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, these same people stipulated that they were willing to take in white children.

And yet, in the wake of that, I would defend them against anyone who said they were racist. Because their actions consistently show otherwise.

But we need to look no further than America's justice system to see a disparity in treatment between minority offenders and caucasian. This connection is not speculative; it's been shown pretty conclusively. We look at the number of minorities in our prison, on death roles, their disproportionate representation on the poverty roles.

I remember years ago when I applied for a job in Wisconsin. I had a string of jobs prior to the one I was applying to, and had moved considerably. The gentleman next to me had somewhat similar history. He was black. The factory had not called for references on us, not drug tested either of us. I got the job; he didn't (and there were multiple positions to fill). I heard the owner specifically cite hjs inconsistent work history as the reason, and that was a common factor we both shared.

Now this was a small factory I worked at for 3 1/2 years. I knew this man. I saw him provide opportunities for a wide variety of people in the time I worked for him, and I don't believe that he had a conscious racist bone in his body. Yet I also know what I saw and heard that day. I was given an opportunity where someone of a different race with a similar resume was denied his.

Maybe it's time we start listening to minority voices in their criticism of our society. I really don't think if my lily white kids walked through a subdivision in Sanford, Florida, they would be profiled, let alone killed. I don't believe that had my lily white kid been standing in Mike Brown's case doing the same thing, they would have met the same fate.  And while that is wholly opinion, I also have a lot of empirical evidence that supports that theory.

We owe it to the Trayvon Martins and the Mike Browns of the world to take a very hard look at the cultural fabric of this country. And to adjust it, change it if we have to in order to create a more equitable society.

Because some mother in some community is due, by law of averages, to get the call tonight that her son was next. And because we owe our children better.

Friday, August 15, 2014

3445 Reasons Why Michael Brown's Shooter Doesn't Get the Benefit of the Doubt.

When Michael Brown was executed in Missouri, the conservative response was to wait until the facts came out. Brown's shooter, they insist, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Yet as I seriously ponder the issue of white privilege, a fact that disturbs me because it should not exist, yet sadly does, I reject the premise that Brown's shooter "deserves" the benefit of the doubt. He will get it of course, but because he is given the assurance of recognition of his rights. That is an assurance that was not given to Michael Brown.

It is an assurance that was not given to 73 black men, later proven innocent, who have faced the executioner. 57 whites, 12 Latinos, and 2 identified as "other" race shared that fate, but the majority of the exonerated were of minority race.

And it's an assurance that was not given to 3,445 men and women of African American descent who met their fate at the hands of lunch mobs that didn't care about their guilt or innocence. That's an average of one every 9 days in America...for 86 years!

That's 3445 reasons why we should insist that Michael Brown's executioner does not get special treatment. I am not calling for a lynch mob mentality, but I am calling for him to be brought to justice; justice he sadly denied Brown when he acted as judge, jury and executioner.

I know that as a parent I am statistically less likely than a father in Ferguson to find my child lying dead on the pavement. I am less likely to have to search the morgue because an overzealous night watchman who thought he was John Wayne targetted my child. I am less likely to find my child profiled for a crime they didn't commit.

I am angry because I was promised a vision where people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. But everywhere I look, I see that I have been given benefits that are denied my brothers and sisters of color. And that infuriates me.

I don't want to benefit from white privilege. I want these families to enjoy the same safety and security that I do. I want to see equal treatment in the justice system and on the streets. And I want to see Michael Brown's murderer live a long life behind the bars of a federal prison for his callous disregard for that young man's life.

We cannot undo the sins of the past, but we can atone for them by focusing more intently on the sins of the present!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why Should I Subsidize Your Hamburger?

The debate on minimum wage sadly is not occurring in the highest levels of government. Conservatives have so conveniently steered the conversation to side issues that it is hardly thought of anymore. And for a country where the effects of recession have all but wiped out the household savings of most families, and where even professionals have had to accept jobs at substantial reductions from their previous job levels, it has never been more relevant.

In fact, as a middle aged worker, I can honestly say that in three decades in the workforce, I have never seen a time when the average family has less money.

The push of many conservatives, even those without a lot of money, has been to oppose increases in wages on the premise that it hurts middle income workers by increasing the cost of goods and services. And certainly it does have an effect, but not as much as people tend to think. There is not a dollar to dollar correlation; in fact because labor costs are usually set below 20% of the gross at service industry businesses (the 20% is a figure lifted from a major fast food chain), even a doubling of wages should only increase prices about 20% or so.

It also bears mentioning that the wages of middle income workers will increase with the rise in minimum wage. Businesses aren't likely to keep paying $30,000 a year for network engineers when that is the minimum wage. And yet, currently, I know many network engineers with degrees who barely make that. Which is disturbing, because that's about what I made 20 years ago as an unskilled, nonunion factory worker.

But the argument that is being overlooked is that in suppressing the price of minimum wage workers, we are effectively subsidizing your burger. As the GOP uses the "hamburger" argument (arguing that you'd have to pay $15 for a burger if you increased the minimum wage to the suggested $15 an hour), essentially they are saying that we should suppress the wages of the poor in order to keep the prices of goods and services low for the middle class. This is a faulty argument, and a cruel one.

We have created a world where it is impossible to survive on minimum wage. Not difficult; impossible. It is not a living wage by any stretch of the imagination. And while the good news is that a decreasing percentage of Americans are making minimum wage, the bad news is that an increasing number of Americans are making less than $15 an hour, as post recession jobs have focused heavily on suppressing wages.

So how do low income families make it? Simple answer: subsidies. The only way they can survive is by accepting subsidies that keep their families' heads above water. In fact, the numbers are interesting: 28% of Americans make less than $15 an hour; 20% of Americans receive SNAP (more popularly called by it's old name of "food stamps". This means that by denying an increase in benefits, taxpayers are effectively working to subsidize the hamburgers of the middle class. Ironically enough, burgers that the workers who make them increasingly cannot afford (most "value meals" hover in the $6-8 an hour range, meaning a minimum wage worker would need to sacrifice an hour's pay to eat their own product. And here Henry Ford was worried about workers being able to afford to own CARS!)

Anyone who has gone to the grocery store recently is aware that costs of food, even staples, has increased at an alarming rate. Pinto beans, for instance, have nearly tripled in price over the last 10 years. As those prices increase, families who are struggling have to stretch and make sacrifices, which usually means eliminating the quality foods from their diet. And while the ACA thankfully covers most of those workers, it can only cover the cost of the consequence from those poor diets; it can't provide food to keep that from happening.

So it's time to think with a conscience. It's time to recognize the workers and give dignity to their jobs. Because people who work for a living, even at low skill jobs, are not a drain on the economy; they are DRIVERS of the economy. All work has worth, and all workers should have dignity. And if you pay them a fair wage, they will spend more, and our economy will grow, not shrink.

Dollars do not exist in limited amounts. Ironically, conservatives chide the poor by stating that the economy is not a "zero sum game" (in other words, my success need not depend on your failure). Yet they continue to suppress wages as the value of the dollar declines as if it were a zero sum game. It's time for that to stop. It's time to recognize the value of their workforce and pay a living wage.

It's time to stop subsidizing the cost of your hamburger.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Push to Make Less Money

I've seen a lot of disturbing trends in my life, and nothing concerns me more than the current trend for lower to middle class workers to beg for their employers to give them LESS money.

It might have made sense at the height of the Great Recession; one can see how misguided workers could have seen the collapse as a result of their greed, as the GOP insisted. And how they might be disinclined to ask for a raise. But it continues long after the recovery happened on Wall Street; while we are well into the recovery on Wall Street, we are still in the throes of recession on Main Street.

Of course, most will insist that they have not been begging to make less money. But they have. Here's how:

Money loses value over time. A dollar today is not the same as a dollar yesterday. And it's certainly not the same as a dollar a hundred years ago. So the longer your wage stagnates at the same level, the less you are getting paid. Don't believe me? Is your gas bill the same as it was five years ago? Your grocery bill? Your rent? In most cases, your costs are higher, in some cases, substantially. Yet we have allowed wages to stagnate.

I recently have viewed several discussions on "good paying" jobs. In each case, the mark was $10 an hour or above. I hate to say it, but I was making substantially more than that twenty years ago as an unskilled, nonunion factory worker. And my wages were not ridiculously high; they were, in fact, typical. The same twenty years ago saw fast food joints paying $9 an hour and up. Rent was cheaper, gas was cheaper, food was cheaper, and utilities were cheaper. Yet wages were higher.

Workers have long allowed themselves to be duped by propaganda that if they simply endure the current austerity measures, the "trickle down" effect would see everyone else become richer. Well, I've lived enough years with false promises to tell you with absolute confidence that the only thing that's trickling down is the effluent!

A higher minimum wage seems like a threat to the middle class simply because the GOP talking heads have made it so. But the truth is, when a full time job doesn't pay enough for a family to survive, someone's making up the difference somewhere. Either taxpayers through entitlement programs, working class families who have to sacrifice to make enough money to survive to the point where divorce and dysfunction become the norm, or, worst of all, the children through disease, malnutrition and poor education.

As for the workers making just over minimum, its ludicrous to think their salaries won't increase as well. A job that requires a degree will always pay more than one that doesn't, because the supply is smaller. And inflation keeps happening whether workers' pay is increased or not.

We don't need more welfare programs in an ideal society. A working adult should make enough money to actually see the promise of a better day. When that promise is being shattered, when they are seeing themselves make less and less while the boss makes more and more, the system has failed.

The rich truly are getting richer, and the poor truly are getting poorer. And millions of Americans are being conned into arguing and voting against their own self interest. The church refuses to take on issues of social justice, instead concentrating their efforts in the realm of Mammon, against the instructions of the Bible.

I don't want to see a revolution. Revolutions are messy and, more often than not, end up with the exact opposite effect of what is desired. But I fear that if workers are starved into submission long enough, revolution may be inevitable. Wake up, folks, and realize that a livable wage is in the best interests of everyone. Don't want to pay for food stamp programs? Then demand fair wages, and the food stamp programs will by necessity have to be reduced. To say nothing of the formerly low income workers who suddenly find themselves paying net federal taxes rather than receiving them back.

I can make a religious case for fair wages, I can make a political case for them. But the odd truth is, most people would rather continue to believe the lie that poor people making more is somehow a threat to their existence. And they're being told this by very wealthy people, with something to protect.

It's time we stopped letting the wealthy dictate what scraps they will offer the working class and started letting the working class negotiate for a fair wage again. Labor was strong in this country before; let it be again!