Minimum wage has been an ongoing issue for years, with many employees in the food service and other industries, as well as college students, including those at Eastern Michigan University, facing a struggle just to make ends meet.
Friday, that conversation moved to Ann Arbor.
Recently, Congressman John Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, along with Michigan representatives Jeff Irwin and Adam Zemke, both Democrats from Ann Arbor, have been part of a movement to increase the minimum wage from $7.40/hr in Michigan to $9/hr.
Dingell is also part of a national movement in Congress to increase the national minimum wage to $10.10/hr.
At Zingerman’s Deli, host to Friday afternoon’s event, employees have consistently been paid above minimum wage.
Pete Sickman-Garner, marketing manager for Zingerman’s, said despite making a profit margin below the normal margin in the food service industry, paying their employees more does work for the company.
Sandy Bledsoe owns a coffee shop near Zingerman’s. He attended EMU for two years in the mid-2000’s.
Bledsoe said he has three employees who work for him, and the starting pay at his coffee shop is $10/hr. He said paying his employees that amount is based on his responsibility to them and to his customers. Bledsoe said making his employees happy makes them want to come to work, and provide a good, personalized experience for his customers.
Sickman-Garner said raising the minimum wage will make paying for college easier for students.
“It’s going to give people the means to do exactly that,” he said. “So [students] won’t have to worry where every cent is going.”
Bledsoe also said the minimum wage increase is an opportunity for college students.
“What it represents is the ability to get an education without having to choose between having a life and getting an education,” he said.
The increase may prove to have an impact on students at EMU, too.
“I don’t have a job lined up after I graduate, so making a little more money is going to help me out when it comes time to pay those student loans back,” senior aviation management manager Michael Varney said. “I think student loans [are] a big issue for most people making minimum wage at this point.”
Varney, 28, has also been working at Zingerman’s for six months.
He said the increased wage can help not just the payment of student loans. Making more money, he said, will make it easier for those who commute.
Instead of paying for public transportation, which is generally more time consuming, they will be able to afford to buy a car if they want or other time-saving modes of transportation so they can focus more on their studies, Varney believes.
Irwin said the impact is not limited to just college students.
“Regardless of whether you’re going to college or just working in the economy, we need to build an economy here in America where when someone shows up, works hard, does a good job that the paycheck they get at the end of the week is at least enough to put a roof over their head and food on their table,” he said. “If we don’t have a system that provides those basics, the system breaks down for everyone.”
Bledsoe said, in addition to the increase’s potential to lift some of the debt off the shoulders of those making minimum wage, paying employees more is a better business model.
“I really think that if your business model hinges on paying people $7 or $8 an hour, it’s not a great business model,” he said.
Irwin thinks the public will rally to get behind this issue.
“I think that we’re going to see a ground swell behind the ballot initiative on this issue,” Irwin said. “Here in Michigan, this is going to have to be done by the people. I work in Lansing – Lansing is an environment controlled top to bottom by Republicans – and we all know who Republicans answer to. They answer to well-heeled, well-connected, deep-pocketed individuals who can write big campaign checks and who are the ones who run these corporations. That’s why I became a Democrat – we need somebody in government to fight for the folks at the bottom and make sure that they have an opportunity to get a fair shake. That’s what’s missing in America today. We’ve moved away from that and wages have slipped so far down – the folks who are making minimum wage cannot get by and we cannot allow that to continue to stand.”
Irwin said students at Eastern can help, too.
“They can get involved in the campaign,” he said. “They can carry petitions, they can contact their elected officials and make sure that their elected officials know how they feel about this issue – in favor or opposed. I would just encourage everyone – students at Eastern, or anyone out there – to get engaged in their government, play an active role as a citizen. That is part of the responsibility that we all share. When everybody has a little bit of attention towards what’s happening in government, we’re going to end up with many more results that favor the common people and fewer results that favor a few.”
Varney said the increase may take some pressure off people weighing the options between picking a career they want or a career that he calls “practical”, or one that stands a better chance of financial success.
“I hope people can find their passion and work towards it,” he said.
Follow Al Willman on Twitter: @AlWillmanEcho
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