Six bucks a week

One of  the  topics raised this week on Julie Briggs’ radio talk show on WMTR was the potential increase in the New Jersey minimum wage.

The thoughtful  Republican legislator from Morris County said in conversations with business owners they had expressed fear about the possibility that the state’s minimum wage might be raised by a constitutional amendment.

But more, they expressed fear  that any increase in their costs would damage their bottom line.

I suppose if there was a proposal out there to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which would at least give workers a fighting chance of keeping their heads above water, businesses would be terrified.

But there isn’t one.

There is a lot of talk about how at $15 an hour  it would be a more livable wage, but history teaches us that the minimum wage increases slower than Jack Benny’s age.

At 16 I got my first minimum wage job, as a short-order cook, and was paid $1.25 an hour. In nearly five decades, the national minimum wage has increased to $7.25 an hour, or a little more than a dollar a decade.

A dollar a decade.

Further, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that in 13 states where the minimum wage was  increased this year, the average hourly hike was 15 cents.

For a person working 20 hours a week that increase would raise their pay by $3 a  week.

Three dollars a week. Not even enough to buy a gallon of gasoline, even if they have a car.

For a person working full-time at 40 hours a week, the increased in pay would be $6  a week.

This is the wage hike that is supposed to bring a $15 trillion economy to its knees?

What it actually is, is  the pay hike that guarantees that the  25 percent of New Jersey residents who qualify as ALICE – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed —  as defined by the United Way of Northern New Jersey’s study,  will increase.

What we won’t get into is that the U.S. has been in been in a jobless recovery, except for the 2007-09 Great Recession – for a decade. The state labor department reports regularly that the largest number of jobs being created are services industry, lower paying jobs.

Then there is the “60 Minutes” report about a distribution center staffed entirely by robots.

My first question for that company is: Who is going to order your stuff when we’re all out of work?

When companies would rather spend billions to build a workplace devoid of humans, it is a sign that we have lost our minds.

This is all a round-about way of answering the Legislator’s concerns about small business survival.

In 1982 I was given the opportunity to run  The Somerset Reporter, a  weekly newspaper in Skowhegan, Maine. It was one of five weeklies owned by a corporation, and was the only one losing money.

It was losing money spectacularly.

We had a circulation of about 3,000 a week and an annual income of $250,000. We were losing $25,000 a year, or 10 percent of our income.

The owner gave me six months to fix it.

The paper could trace its roots to 1840, or 20 years after Maine became a state.   Families had read about the Civil War, the first automobile, the first airplane, the first tar road; about booms that brought great mansions to Water Street and busts that had folks lining the street looking for a meal; about births and deaths and weddings and celebrations in a way that made the paper, as is the term, the paper of record.

The weight of that history hit me one day when a man renewed his family’s subscription that had been active since 1890.

Now, some of my costs were controlled through essentially a franchise fee I paid to the corporation that covered the cost of the building and taxes. We also paid the corporation for printing services and supplies, which were bought in bulk, presumably for a lower price.  For additional income, I rented the two spaces that were attached to our building.

What I controlled directly was time, payroll and income.

One of the first things I did was give everyone a raise.  I had four employees and my office manager was bringing home less than $75 a week.  The owner hated it, but I told  him that if were going to ask for more and smarter work, we’d had better to be willing to pay for it upfront.

That gave me more control over time.

Our biggest production issue was that it took one-third of our workweek to layout the paper.  We were using 30-year-old quasi-mechanical/electronic typesetting equipment that required three steps to turn typed material into galleys of type ready for paste-up. Since the owner was not  about to buy us new computers, I changed schedules for ads, some hand-in copy like announcements, changed how we stripped down the previous week’s galleys and set a drop-dead time for when I would leave the building Wednesday with the completed paper for the 60-mile drive to the printing plant.

Changes in the make-up procedure allowed us more time for news reporting.  We began to run the weekly like a daily newsroom. I had never worked in a daily newspaper at that point, but I knew how to do it, in part because I had worked in restaurants for a decade and deadlines were deadlines.

The result was that we for the first time covered municipal government  meetings and school sports events on Tuesdays, so the results would be in the paper on Thursday instead of a week later.

We added a “town-of-the-week feature” and I packaged the 16 stringers into a local news section of folksy, town news that my staff could not have generated at any cost.

The result was that the Somerset Reporter on each Thursday was the freshest newspaper it had been in years.

A better product lead to more per-copy sales and more ad revenue.

The additional $3,600 a month I needed to reach  break-even was achievable.

Part of why it worked is that we didn’t have a lot of time to bitch and moan about our plight or the condition of the world or how unfair it all was.  We had work to do.

Six months into it, we were turning the business around; 18 months later we were breaking even.

That was when I left.  After getting beat on weekly for doing exactly that I  told the owner I would, and doing what he demanded – turning the paper around – I quit and ended up at the Waterville Sentinel, where they paying attention to what we had accomplished.

So my answer to the Legislator is this:

The business community is part of the greatest economic scheme there ever was: The U.S. economy.  You have more chances to make money for yourself, your stockholders and your employees than anyone else in the world.

Yeah, there are challenges.  Health care reform is a challenge, but why not assign some of your best and brightest to craft solutions for your business?

Instead of complaining about your taxes (which are at historic lows) why not demand better services?  Why not demand that government devise coherent plans for transportation, land use and redevelopment, housing policy and education instead of complaining that it all costs money? Demand that you get more for your tax dollar than the crony-laden, dysfunctional system now in place.

Business leaders are not the most put upon people in the world, they just play one on TV.

The most put-upon people in the world are the single mothers trying to raise their  kids on a minimum wage job, the married couple just starting out who need an affordable place to live, the returning vet who needs medical care and compassion.

The most put upon person in the world is that employee for whom  that 15 cents an hour might actually make a difference.  That six bucks a week is $24 a month.  Maybe it’s a new pair of pants, or a new toy for their child.  Maybe they save it.

For someone who makes many times that six bucks a week, it might seem so trivial they ask, why do it.

You do it because is it six bucks a week.

Just six buck a week.

If you can’t manage your business well enough to cover such a small increase in payroll you’re not  paying attention.

The Somerset Reporter was closed down about a decade after I left. The owner (the same one) said that the only time the paper had made a go of it was the time when I ran it.

It’s six buck a week.

If I can do it, you can, too.

It’s six buck a week.

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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