The minimum wage went up, so the owner cut my hours!

I kind of like working at the fast-food restaurant, but now I'm making less than I was before.

By Cary Tennis
Published January 17, 2007 12:04PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a college freshman in the San Francisco area, and also an employee at a certain fast-food restaurant. I go to school during the day and work during the night. Now, as you already know, college isn't cheap. Although I don't need to worry about rent, food and bills because I live with my parents for the time being, I still end up with a large hole in my wallet due to classes, textbooks and gas for my car.

Now, I've worked at this restaurant for about a year and a half now, and although we were all paid minimum wage (except for the manager, of course), I was still earning enough to make it through college. Besides, my manager is simply a great guy to work for, and he's more like a friend than a supervisor. Point is, I had fun at work and I was making a decent amount.

Recently, however, I've been thinking about quitting. Minimum wage went up this year, so if anything I should be happy. However, starting this week, the owner of the restaurant started cutting back our hours. The business isn't failing or anything, yet he just decided to cut back our hours. While I used to get around 23 hours a week, I now have 14. My co-workers are suffering the same fate, each of them losing five or more hours. When I calculated my coming paycheck, I realized that I was making more money before the raise than I will now. How is it that our wage goes up, but we end up making less than before? Although I live with my parents, $100 a week is hardly enough (that may end up being $80 or something after taxes).

So my question is this: Should I stay with this restaurant and wait around to see if things improve even though I'm making less than before, or should I just quit this job before it's too late and get a job at the bookstore down the street?

A 19-year-old in a Jam

Dear 19-year-old,

Which is the better thing, to work in a fast-food restaurant or to work in a bookstore? I think to work in a bookstore. Because, I would say, What is better, a book or a hamburger? Who takes a hamburger home and studies it and finds after spending many days sitting in a chair with the hamburger that her life has changed a little bit, that she is suddenly, like a person waking from a dream, seeking a magical vision she found in the hamburger? Who reads a hamburger aloud to a lover? Who falls asleep cradling a hamburger lovingly in his hands? Who takes a hamburger to a radio station and presents it to the world? Who takes a stage at a cafe and says, I just made this hamburger and I want to share it with you? Who runs into a friend on the street and says, I have to tell you about this new hamburger? Who remembers 25 years later the difference a hamburger made in his life?

So I say to you, my 19-year-old friend, now that you are free to think as you choose: Think about what is valuable and what is not. Better yet, think about what would be valuable in 100 years and what would not. Think about a person visiting the museum of San Francisco in 100 years. Would he find the hamburger you served? Would he admire the culture that produced it?

Also, think about your own labor, for your labor shapes your spirit and your conscience as it shapes the world. Do you want your spirit to be shaped by the best writing of the world's most loving, intelligent, powerful and passionate people, people who love beauty and can express that love? Or do you want your spirit to be shaped by hamburgers? Do you want your labor to reverberate in the world by creating more hamburgers, so that the world is increasingly filled with people who are filled with hamburgers and shaped like hamburgers and smelling of hamburgers? Or do you want your labor to reverberate in the world by creating more knowledge and understanding, by helping people who want to become architects become architects, by helping people who want to become mathematicians and scientists and priests become mathematicians and scientists and priests?

Your labor shapes your life so you must choose wisely the kind of work you do. It also shapes your relationships. When a person owns a business, he buys your labor from you. Then he owns that labor -- the time you spent, what you made: He owns that. You have sold it to him. It is not a relationship between equals engaged in a common endeavor. It is a relationship between buyer and seller. The buyer in this case has most of the power.

That is not a good situation. He can buy as little of your labor as he likes. It sounds like the price of your labor went up so he decided to buy less of it. He may be making a point; here is what I think of the government's increasing the minimum wage: I will buy less labor!

You have a practical problem here, which is you need more money. In this instance, I think you will make more money in the long run if you take the bookstore job. It may not pay very well now. But it will pay incremental dividends in social and intellectual capital. And you may be able to purchase needed books at a steep discount.

If you work at the bookstore, you will still be a number on some page of payroll expenses.

But you will be serving a higher-quality product to a more elite clientele.

Hamburgers don't change lives. Books do. Give notice and move up the street.

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