Efforts continue in the Legislature to increase the Washington state minimum wage, currently the highest minimum in the nation. Mike Rowe, the popular host of Dirty Jobs, recently posted on one of the unacknowledged effects of boosting the minimum wage. He was reflecting on his early teenage job at a movie theater.
I thought about all this last month when I saw “Boyhood” at a theater in San Francisco. I bought the tickets from a machine that took my credit card and spit out a piece of paper with a bar code on it. I walked inside, and fed the paper into another machine, which beeped twice, welcomed me in mechanical voice, and lowered a steel bar that let me into the lobby. No usher, no cashier. I found the concession stand and bought a bushel of popcorn from another machine, and a gallon of Diet Coke that I poured myself. On the way out, I saw an actual employee, who turned out to be the manager. I asked him how much a projectionist was making these days, and he just laughed.
“There’s no such position,” he said. I just put the film in the slot myself and press a button. Easy breezy.”
From the business owners I’ve talked to, it seems clear that companies are responding to rising labor costs by embracing automation faster than ever. That’s eliminating thousands of low-paying, unskilled, entry level positions.
Anecdotal? Sure, but the Washington Research Council has just published a policy brief and podcast taking a more academic look at the data. The brief has a lot of good information, which lawmakers and advocates may want to evaluate as they consider policies that may have the unintended consequence of foreclosing opportunities for those most in need of the chance to get ahead.
Increases in the minimum wage are a tradeoff. Some gain, but many lose. Those who keep their jobs and their hours benefit. But those employees who lose their jobs or have their hours reduced lose out. Research shows that the negative impacts on individuals and businesses are real and long-lasting.
Make sure the policies are tailored to the objective. It’s not as easy as it looks.
For an interesting look at the other end of the wage curve, consider this: Americans have a 1 in 9 chance of making it into the 1 percent – staying there is the problem.