There are some arguments that you can never win. Just ask any married couple. For those of us who have had important differences of opinion with spouses, significant others or even colleagues, there are times when even though you know in your heart that you’re right, you simply aren’t going to win the argument.
At that point, you have three choices: keep banging your head against the wall, acquiesce or just move on to a different conversation. After 23 years of marriage, I have become exceedingly familiar with the third choice. Alas, we seem to have reached that kind of decision point with regard to the minimum wage.
The industry continues to find itself on the short end of this conversation, and is losing ground by the day. When an issue polls 80 percent against you, and Republican-led legislatures are passing mandated wage increases at the state level, it might be time to rethink how you’re approaching that issue.
Stalwart Republican voters in Nebraska, Alaska, South Dakota and Arkansas easily passed significant increases at the ballot on election day, while at the same time they overwhelmingly elected Republican senators. If that reality is not enough of a wake-up call, then you are not actually just asleep; you are in a deep coma.
The wage issue has become our industry’s quicksand. The more we thrash around, the further we seem to sink. In the same way that it can be impossible to win a disagreement with your spouse, even if the facts are on your side, our justifiable and fact-based arguments about wages, hours, business models, margins and profitability are not resonating with the people we are trying to convince. Yet we don’t seem to realize it.
A handful of companies are trying to change this dynamic. They have unilaterally adjusted their wage scales. I’m not picking a side on whether that is a smart play or not. I am merely pointing out that not even the industry is on the same page anymore with this issue.
Some critics of our industry argue that we prove every day that our business model can adjust to different economic conditions. They cite the extensive growth globally of many of the leading industry brands — particularly in Europe — as evidence that profitable restaurants can be run in an environment of higher wages and benefits, along with a larger tax and regulatory burden.
While the jury is still out on how sustainable that model is in the long run, it’s the wrong comparison. If our opponents argue that our wage and benefit models should look more like Europe’s, then they need to have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge the whole picture.
One of the many trade-offs is that the European cost structure creates a higher barrier to entry for job seekers, resulting in routinely higher unemployment than here in America and a significantly higher percentage of the population on public assistance. Sure, the people that have the jobs can make more money. But for those that are shut out, they are welcome to get on the public dole. European Nirvana. If our opponents want to compare us to other parts of the world, then bring it on. I would personally prefer to avoid modeling ourselves after traditionally sluggish economies with high unemployment. But hey, that’s just me.
The first step on the economic ladder
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The beauty of our American system is that we have significantly lower barriers to entry, and thus can get millions of additional workers into the workforce. As a result, our sector of the economy plays a very different and more critically important role in the U.S. than it does in other parts of the world. In Europe and elsewhere, many view service sector jobs as an endgame — you can make a living wage and afford to remain there if you so choose.
In the U.S., we view that job as not only a valued position in itself but, more importantly, an incredibly necessary first step onto the economic ladder. Here, unless you are born into a family of means, the road to the $80,000 a year engineering job at DuPont more often than not starts at the counter of a McDonald’s, an Outback, a Walgreens or a Holiday Inn. That’s what makes this sector different and indispensible. And that is precisely where we need to take this conversation.
Lets get out of the sticky bog of debating wage levels and seek the higher ground of the invaluable role that entry-level employment plays in our economy. Let’s talk less about our industry’s business model and talk more about our role in America’s economic model.
That is the national discussion we should be having. It’s a debate we can and should win.
To do this, we are going to have to look at things quite differently. Even the word “we” needs to mean something very different than it does now. This is not a restaurant issue for the restaurant industry to solve. It’s too big. It’s not a hotel issue for the lodging industry to solve. The same goes for convenience stores, grocery stores and big-box retailers. The “we” has to become all of us in the entry-level employment sector working as one entity to redefine the role we collectively play in putting Americans to work and creating real opportunities for advancement for the middle class and beyond.
Admittedly, this represents a bigger challenge than the industry is used to. Playing good defense on the various workplace issues that come our way is difficult enough. While the industry has done a good job in the last 20 years protecting itself, the landscape beneath our feet is changing rapidly, and it’s time for a more proactive approach to the issues that define our industry.
It is imperative that all segments of the affected industries unite behind this idea and begin to lead a higher-level and more broad-based conversation that not only protects our business model, but that unapologetically positions us as the backbone of the American economy and the springboard to the middle class for tens of millions of Americans.
As Don Draper, the lead character in the TV show Mad Men said, “If you don’t like what’s being said, then change the conversation.” For our industry, the time has come to do just that.