Take it from a former fast-food worker, the minimum wage increase is way overdue

May 5, 2021 4:03 pm

Advocates calling for the General Assembly to increase the minimum wage rally outside the Capitol last year. (NBC12)

Here’s a story for all the folks who thought Virginia shouldn’t have raised its minimum wage this month to $9.50 an hour, from the previous rate of $7.25. It’s the first increase in a dozen years in Virginia, which had followed the federal standard. 

Yours truly entered the workforce back in high school, toiling at what many of us claim as our first formal jobs — fast-food restaurants. I flipped burgers, bused tables and mopped floors at Burger King and later, McDonald’s. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the money was actually enough to pay a sizable amount of my college tuition and books. 

Please don’t bawl, 20-somethings.

Mind you, the fast-food gig required more brawn than brains, plus the ability to deal with customers who were often nasty and rude “just because.” I got my share of burns. Confronted a would-be pickpocket. For all that, the minimum wage I earned in 1978 was a princely $2.65 an hour.

A government inflation calculator says that meager amount has the buying power today of $11.23. So even with latest minimum-wage hike approved by state lawmakers, low-income workers around Virginia are essentially making less than I earned more than 40 years ago!

There’s something wrong about that. 

A full-time employee who works 52 weeks a year — even on the new minimum wage in Virginia — will earn less than $20,000 annually. That’s before taxes. A congressional fact sheet for a higher minimum says one in nine U.S. laborers has poverty-level wages, even when they work full time and year-round.

Sure, such workers might have other gigs (because they have to). They may not be the only wage-earner in their households. Government aid probably supplements their income.

But, still. This is barely subsistence living. Folks who decry “welfare programs” should be gung-ho about raising this important wage floor.


So I grit my teeth at the business organizations, shop owners and Republicans in the General Assembly who reflexively opposed the increase in the commonwealth. Dozens of states and Washington, D.C., had already boosted their rates above the federal minimum. They include Maryland, Delaware and Arkansas

Subsequent hikes in Virginia would bring the rate here to $12 an hour in 2023.

The Virginia Mercury’s Ned Oliver reported that opponents warned the increase in the minimum wage will have the biggest impact on restaurant, retail and entertainment industries heavily affected by the pandemic. I’ll note that had the state raised the stagnant rate years ago, when Republicans still controlled the General Assembly, this wouldn’t be an issue now. 

So there’s that.

This issue is highly politicized, highly debated. It’s easy to find studies, papers and economists who support your point of view about the minimum wage and what increases in the rate — or the lack thereof — do to the financial outlook of businesses and workers. 

The minimum wage started in 1938 under FDR, during the Great Depression. The government thought it had to step in to establish an absolute bottom for workers. You can understand why: Some businesses won’t pay any amount except what they’re mandated to do. noted recently that “the pace of wage growth started slowing after 1968, and the minimum wage stopped rising with inflation.”

A recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said if the federal minimum wage rose to $15 an hour by 2025, as many Democrats prefer, 1.4 million workers could lose their jobs. On the flip side, the number of people in poverty would be reduced by nearly 1 million.

There was also this comment from an official with the Virginia chapter of the National Federation for Independent Businesses: “When you raise that floor — it puts a lot of pressure for you to raise it for all your employees.”

Well, yeah. That should be the goal for employers who want to hold on to valuable employees. Their wages shouldn’t be eaten up by inflation every year. 

Too many Americans work for pay that rivals a state of penury. The government and business owners should help ensure that folks who want to feed and house their family can do so. 

It took way too long for legislators to raise Virginia’s minimum wage. Any burger-flipper knows that. 


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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]