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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Living Wage

It’s one of the last sunny days of summer as I’m driving down I-80 with the soothing sounds of the NPR lulling me into a state of believing all is well in the world as another segment begins to cover the upturn in the economy and job market. With the warm sun washing over my left arm, I switch into autopilot and tune out everything that’s going on around me. The exit sign whips past shaking me from my mindless state and I tear across three lanes to catch my exit. The newscaster takes the left hand turn with me and his words are starting to penetrate the outer stratosphere of my brain and sound less like noise and more like something I should be paying attention to.

“McDonald’s employees are walking the picket line downtown in front of NY’s famous golden arches. Disgruntled workers are pressing for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, they’re calling it a living wage. That is almost double what minimum wage earners currently make. I’m fully engaged in the story now as I begin to feel resentful towards the whiners who think that just because they hold up a sign and march around in circles for a day or two that they are magically going to open their next paycheck and the good fairy will have given them a 100% raise.

Ridiculous, I think to myself, what are they going to ask for next? Paid vacations and an extra 15 minutes added to their lunch hour. In this economy they should just be grateful that they even have a job. They aren’t CEO’s, CFO’s or whatever other fancy acronym companies think of. How can they seriously believe that they have a chance affecting the minimum wage, it’s not like McDonalds is a lifelong career choice for anybody so why are they getting everybody wound up? Lazy bunch of whiners, I think as I take a left turn and roll into the Wendy’s drive through. I ease in behind the last car in line and put mine in park. My 99’ Chrysler serpentine belt starts wildly squealing, and I curse under my breath. Dad’s been telling me that I need to replace the pulley system for the last three months, but how am I supposed to come up with that kind of money. The last time he heard that whine he warned that if I didn’t take care of it soon that the engine shaft could break and the cost would be in the $1,000’s not just a measly $400, it might as well be $10,000. Thinking of the cost starts to frustrate me so I turn my attention to more important things, the drive through menu. I start to study it like I’m going to have a test on it in the morning. I’ll worry about the car later. Right now I have other things on my mind.

Finally, the line inches forward and I reach for my wallet just as the teller opens the window and says “That’ll be $2.76. I rummage through the neatly folded stack of receipts and multicolored plastic cards until I come up with three crisp dollar bills. The wallet seems thicker every time I have to dig through it lately, but even shaking it upside down little money comes out; those pieces of green paper are getting harder and harder to find in there. Reaching out of the car I surrender them to the cashier. Briefly my gaze comes in contact with a tired middle-aged woman whose red knuckles show signs of a recently removed wedding ring. I grin, snort and half laugh as I say, “Well I’m glad Wendy’s workers have their heads on straight, too bad for the folks who can’t live without a Big Mac for a day or two right?” Her almost lifeless blank stare and a forced smile told me she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.

Figures I thought. How could I expect someone who works at a dead end job in fast food to be an informed citizen, and know what’s going on in the world. Geeze, and these people are allowed to vote? I shake my head in disbelief and shift into gear. The belt is in rare form as it hits a decibel so high while I’m pulling out that I instinctively pull my cap down lower and duck my head so no one will notice that it’s me in this old clunker.

I haven’t done half bad for myself I think as I open the back door at work. Four years of loyal service that will soon pay off. They’ve trusted me lately with the duties of two of my former co-workers. It makes complete sense that I could handle their tasks anyway. Those guys were lazy, unorganized, and slackers on top of that. What a waste of wages for the company. This isn’t a welfare state around here. Only highly motivated people fit in here, and to boot they were grossly overpaid! For a third of the price, I’m able to do the same work it used to take three of us to do. “Keep it up”, I repeat to myself my daily little motivational speech, “I bring value to my place of work. I am a valuable employee”.

As I punch in I notice a few resumes have been left out on the counter. I know I shouldn’t look, but it’s always good to know what the competition is I justify. I check around the corner to make sure I’m alone and start shuffling through the pieces of blue and beige parchment paper resumes that were obviously designed in an advanced business class. I skim through the bullet points:

  • Application 1- Business graduate – BYU
  • Application 2- Duel major – finance and economics – USU
  • Application 3- Store Manager and new mechanic trainer for 7 years at Pep Boys

Slowly a grin comes over my face, I struggle to not start laughing out loud. On paper, the accomplishments of these applicants would easily deem them more qualified than myself. But why would they waste their hard earned degrees to apply for a retail job? There is no way I would ever waste my life trying to work here if I had that piece of paper carrying the University’s seal. These guys must really be the bottom of the barrel to even consider working here. Thinking about school reminds me of my past failed attempts at a higher education. The Wendy’s hamburger starts to churn and twist my stomach as I think of the pitifully few credits I’ve accrued through the years. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever graduate; I have a good paying job, but not good enough to cover tuition and that nasty little habit of eating that I can’t seem to kick. Work always took priority. I already have unpaid student loans hanging like Damocles sword over my head.

I’ll pay them off, I will, I’m not a dead beat” I say to myself as I toss the papers back to the desk, and quickly head to the fridge to grab a drink and help me get focused for work.

I walk through the dark hallway and settle down into my unofficial assigned seat, I took it over after the layoff of my old co-workers. Jake, another technician and college grad sits next to me in his stall, scanning his screen intently. His usual cheery greeting is floating in a silent hostile cloud. It’s like silence walked into the room right before me and took over the conversation. I pull over a pile of old phone parts, clear my throat to say something that will lighten the atmosphere a bit.

“Looks like we’re in for a full day of work” lame I know, but it seems to bring Jake a little out of his reverie.

His eyes don’t even pause as he continues to read every word on the screen just inches in front of his nose. Without even looking up to make eye contact he asks, “Have you read over our new commission’s agreement for work?”

“Of course I have,” I shrug the question off, hoping he isn’t looking to me to explain the fine details.

“Did you read the part about our hourly wage decrease and that our at-risk pay is increased?”

The boss had explained this to me and assured me that after the program was fully implemented that I’d actually make more money. I try to craft a wise sounding response but am stopped after the third syllable.

“Come look at this. When you factor in how we can qualify for our bonus the metrics clearly will never be able to be fully met, all this is, is a strategic wage cut disguised as an incentive program to make us feel all warm and fuzzy and work much harder, even though we are currently each doing the work of four other people. It won’t be the company’s fault if we don’t get a bonus, they’d be more than willing to pad out paychecks, if we can do the work, but that’s a pretty big if. That’s a stab in the back when you realize that the company has been growing every year, and with the recent lay-offs and redistribution of workload, not lessening the load, but increasing it dramatically. And what do they do? Cut our pay? Where’s the loyalty in that I ask?”

I scan over the pages and see what he’s talking about, resentment for my boss joins the churning in my stomach as I begin to realize that what I thought would be a wage increase is actually a dramatic cut in pay. My emotions swell as I pace the room, wondering how I’m going to live on less than what I’m already getting paid. An urge to react comes over me, but suddenly the realization of what would happen if I didn’t have a job. What if my boss told me that if I don’t like it I was welcome to find a better job out there? What if he knows that Wendy’s was hiring and he told me to go check that out? My mind is spinning faster than my stomach by this point. How would I pay rent, bills, take care of my wife and now on top of that a new daughter? I sit, and think to myself “We’ll be okay, we can cut the budget down. My family might not be able to go out on the town anymore but we’ll be fine. Besides with a new baby on the way we’ll want to stay home more…won’t we?”

Panic surges through my mind, were can we cut? There isn’t anything left to cut, we’ve been putting our bills on the credit cards to make ends meet as is. I need to escape, just get away for a minute and calm down. I plug in my phones headset and crank up Pandora, forcing myself into a thoughtless state. The familiar soothing sounds, help me forget my panic and worries about not knowing how I’ll pay the bills. As the song pauses, I follow, slowing bringing my phones dark smooth LCD screen closer to my face. The dim glow from the florescent lights behind me reflects an eerily familiar image. I draw it in, almost inches from my face, my breath stops, my heart slows as I see the same lifeless tired eyes staring back at me.

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