Nickel and Dimed in America – a tribute to Barbara Ehrenreich (may she RIP)

Yesterday, I learned that Barbara Ehrenreich passed away at the age of 81. From the Associated Press,

“Barbara Ehrenreich, the author, activist and self-described ‘myth buster’ who in such notable works as ‘Nickel and Dimed’ and ‘Bait and Switch’ challenged conventional thinking about class, religion and the very idea of an American dream, has died at age 81…A prolific author who regularly turned out books and newspaper and magazine articles, Ehrenreich honed an accessible prose style that brought her a wide readership for otherwise unsettling and unsentimental ideas. She disdained individualism, organized religion, unregulated economics and what Norman Vincent Peale famously called ‘the power of positive thinking.’”

I wrote the following post nine years ago about the need to increase the minimum wage. Fortunately, many states and cities did this very thing to get folks closer to a living wage.

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The walkout this week by restaurant workers to protest poor wages is indicative of a major problem we have in this country. We have a poverty problem in this country with far too many people living in poverty or paycheck to paycheck. As I have noted in earlier posts, the disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots” has grown wider at the same time our socio-economic class mobility has greatly diminished. Where we are born and to whom we are born are now greater indicators of success than they used to be. To compound the problem, those who are in the upper income echelons are having a more difficult time appreciating the challenges faced by those who are not. More on this later.

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed (in America),” she chronicled her efforts and those of her co-workers, in trying to live on minimum or near-minimum wage jobs. Her conclusion is these jobs perpetuate poverty. She notes a variety of factors which include not being able to afford healthcare, not being able to save, poor food habits as fast food was the cheapest and most convenient food, being a slave to the work schedulers, being tied to mass transportation schedules due to gas prices, and having to work more than one job. She also noted in the restaurant jobs, people having to work when they are sick, because they needed the pay. Getting by was the best you could hope for. Getting ahead was quite difficult as you were treated like a commodity. I would add this contention is supported by Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” A summary of the key findings in the book can be gleaned from the attached post.  https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/the-rich-and-the-rest-of-us-a-must-read/

Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. In some places, the state or local minimum wage is higher (Illinois, California have $8.00; Arizona is $7.47 and the city of San Francisco is $9.79, e.g.). Yet, a living wage is higher in these locations. A living wage varies by geography and is based on the cost of living to provide shelter, food, healthcare and basic necessities. Attached is a link to a MIT website that will allow you to see the calculation of living wage by area. http://livingwage.mit.edu/.

Per this MIT website, in my home county in North Carolina, a living wage is now $10.02 for a single adult and $19.68 for a one parent, one child family. In other higher cost of living areas, the living wage can be a few dollars more. As of this writing, President Obama has proposed an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00. While not enough, the increase is a tangible step forward. Per a Gallup Poll in March 2013, this proposal is supported by 70% of Americans. The result is even higher for women, Democrats, moderates, non-whites, adults who earn less than $24,000 per annum, and young adults. 2/3 of Americans who are seniors, Independents, and earners between $24,000 and $60,000 support the change. It is only beneath 67% for men, Republicans conservatives,and upper middle class earners and above.

Those who decry this change cite that we will end up with fewer jobs as a result. I have seen data on both sides of this argument. To me, there is a huge cost of turnover in retail and restaurant jobs due to lost productivity of the staff, but also of the department and store manager. The manager has to spend more time back-filling a job or making sure people are on the floor, than focusing on customer service and selling merchandise. Any measure a retail company can do to reduce this churn shows up in better productivity. Per the attached link, Costco seems to believe this, as they pay their people far more than the minimum and are doing quite well. http://money.cnn.com/2013/08/06/news/economy/costco-fast-food-strikes/index.html.

We have a problem in this country, which will only get worse, if we do not remedy it. This is a key reason I have been a staunch supporter of Obamacare. While imperfect, it does speak to the healthcare insurance needs of those who are now uninsured. And, many of those who cannot afford insurance are working in retail and restaurants. Yet, we must pay people better. Will it cause the number of jobs to go down? My guess is for some employers it might, but for many it won’t. In my consulting work with retail and restaurant employers, I have observed the employers who treat their employees as commodities will never have the productivity and customer service of those who treat their employees as key in their ability to sell products and serve customers. These latter companies work back from how can we serve the customer better.

And, when you hear someone who is doing more than fine financially state that increasing the minimum wage is a poor investment of money, please respond the better off people are, the less they will depend on those so-called hand-outs the well off seem to hate. I do not like to use the term hand-outs, as helping people survive in tough times is an appropriate investment of resources, yet for an audience that tends to use this term freely, it is an argument that might resonate. Plus, the more we all have to spend, the better off the economy will be. Let’s increase the minimum wage. It is time.

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Thank you Barbara Ehrenreich – you made us think and sit-up and take notice.

Minimum wage continues to increase in many places

The minimum wage continues to rise in a number of places. Effective next year,81 jurisdictions will see tangible increase to amounts already above the nationwide minimum wage. Per a USA Today article yesterday called “Minimum wage is about to rise in 21 states, 35 localities as more embrace $15 an hour,” the national minimum is of less importance in more places.

A few paragraphs from the piece follows, with a link to the entire article below:

Twenty-one states and 35 cities and counties are set to raise their minimum wages on or about New Year’s Day, according to a report provided exclusively to USA TODAY by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a worker advocacy group.

Base hourly pay will climb from $11 to $12 in Illinois; from $9.25 to $10.50 in Delaware; from $9.50 to $11 in Virginia; from $12 to $13 for most workers in New Jersey; and from $10.50 to $11.50 in New Mexico.

Since some governments will act later in the year, a total of 25 states and 56 localities – a record 81 jurisdictions – will lift their pay floors sometime in 2022, according to NELP….

Besides California and New York, nine states are headed to a $15 pay base over the next four years – Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Virginia. They’ll join 50 localities at or on the way to $15, including Chicago, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

All told, by 2026, about 40% of the U.S. workforce will be covered by $15 minimum wage mandates, NELP figures show.

Separately, at least 100 or so mostly large companies already have raised their pay floors to $15 or higher, including Best Buy, Costco, Wayfair, The Container Store and Southwest Airlines, according to the NELP study.”  

With living wages for individuals, two-person and greater families at a higher rate than the national minimum wage, it is good to see these jurisdictions and employers recognize this. Right now, retailers, restaurants, customer service jobs are available. Just check out the signs for hire when you walk in the door. People have been voting with their feet doing other jobs instead. Some have decided to do a compilation of independent contractor jobs to get by, rather than work on someone else’s schedule.

Having worked as a volunteer to help working homeless families, these wages increases are good to see. Too many of our clients were working at insufficient wages at multiple jobs to meet the rent demands. The demand for workers is also good to see as people will have more choices. With any job, but especially a customer facing one, do yourself a favor and make yourself valuable. Do these things and you will see some success – show up, show up on time and show up dressed with a helpful attitude.

https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/markets/minimum-wage-is-about-to-rise-in-21-states-35-localities-as-more-embrace-15-an-hour/ar-AARYykL?ocid=msedgntp

Sometimes you have to change your mind – a life crossroads moment

Reading our Australian friend Amanda’s post this morning (see link below), she noted it is more than OK to start down a path and do a U-turn. Sometimes, you realize you have embarked on a journey you don’t want to go on or you have chosen the wrong person to go with. This reminded me of a real life crossroads moment.

I left consulting for a job with one of my clients which I loved. I wanted to work on that side of the table for awhile, knowing it would benefit me no matter what I did in the future. After a few years, I got an opportunity to go back into consulting and return to a city that my wife and I met in and started our family. With sadness I turned in my resignation.

As I was packing up my office, I came to the life shattering revelation that I did not want to leave, at least not just yet. I also realized I was selling myself short, as I was going back into the same level of consulting that I left, just with a different company.

So, I called my wife and said “I cannot do this.” She asked “Pack?” And, I said “No, leave.” She then said “Who are you?” in gest. With her blessing, we decided to stay, but I had to call my boss. In turn, he had to call his boss. And, of course, I had to call the employer I was turning down.

With their permission, I rescinded my resignation. It was the best unwinding of a decision I have ever done. I enjoyed my time there and received many opportunities to learn and grow. I eventually did leave a few years later, one reason being the company was going to have to merge as it needed to be more scalable. I was offered a job that was clearly a better one than the one I turned down after accepting. It should be noted, the job was with the same company I turned down, so I did not burn any bridges the first time.

Life crossroads don’t come around often. So, it is important to make sure the decision is what you want to do. If I left, it would have been OK, but I was much better off by staying. I have regretted not going further down certain paths, yet whatever steps are taken should involve some due diligence the more important the decision. Frost called it “The Road not taken.” Whether you take it or not, give it some thought.

The Destination or Pathway of Life – Something to Ponder About (wordpress.com)

Who’s got the monkey? (a revisit to an earlier post)

Henry Ford once said, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.” It reminded me of an article I read about twenty years ago called “Who’s got the monkey?” penned by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald Wass.

In essence, the article is designed to help managers budget their time.* The authors called the delegation of an assignment – the monkey. The manager has passed along the oversight of this task to a member of his or her team. Yet, what often happens the team member will get stumped and bring the problem back and place the monkey on the manager’s shoulders.

The only result of this process is the manager becomes a bottleneck and nothing gets done, as the manager lacks the time. The manager also gets frustrated and stressed. The key theme of this article is for the manager to not accept the monkey back, unless one condition has been met. The monkey comes back with a couple of ideas to solve the impasse. Rather than bringing an unsolved problem back, the subordinate brings a solvable problem that just needs an OK.

So, if a team member just hands the problem back, the manager should not accept the monkey and ask that he or she work through a couple of paths forward. So, Henry Ford quote is very relevant, in my view. The article can be linked to below.

*Note: Management is hard work and often it does not get done as well as it should due to busy schedules or unfamiliarity with what is needed. One of the best pieces of advice came from a staff member of a very busy manager. She helped the manager manage her by making the best use of his time. She asked if she could set-up a fifteen briefing with him a couple of times a week to ask him questions and tell him where she is on various projects. The manager loved the focused time. It was her way of managing up.

https://hbr.org/1999/11/management-time-whos-got-the-monkey

Big Issue #3 – Investing in our Infrastructure

As a very positive sign, the President-elect has emphasized the need to reinvest in our infrastructure which is in need of repair. This is consistent with the plans that his opponent had envisioned and with policies that the current President has pleaded with Congress to do. It should be noted that this bipartisan desire echoes testimony by the leaders of the US Chamber of Commerce and Labor Unions who beseeched Congress to invest more in our infrastructure, and is reinforced by former Director of Transportation Ray LaHood and former PA Governor Ed Rendell.

These investments pay huge dividends beyond the repair, upgrade or rebuilding of our deteriorated assets of roads, highway bridges, railway bridges and lines, power grids, airports, cabling, etc. These investments create jobs. This is a key reason for Labor Union leaders backing the investment.

This is how we used to invest in our country, with government investment partnering with private investment to do things private investors could not do alone or where the ROI was insufficient for one entity. This history is well captured in a book by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum called “That Used to be Us: How America fell behind in the World it Created and How it can come back.” A new book by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson called “American Amnesia: How the War on Government led us to forget what made America Prosper” echoes this theme. We have forgotten what made us great.

Yet, we should not lose sight of the reluctance of Congress to part with the money because of our debt. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner greased the skids by getting some Highway Trust funding before he retired at the end of October 2015, but that is not near enough. An economist whose name escapes me said in an interview, borrowing to invest in an asset is different from borrowing to pay for operations and with interest rates so low, we are letting the ideal time pass to do this.

We should be concerned with our debt, but like corporations, while cutting in some areas are needed, we need to invest in our deteriorated assets. This is an area where some obvious funding could be created and aligned through an increase to our comparatively low gas tax. By increasing the federal gas tax by 35 cents per gallon, per the nonpartisan The Concord Coalition, it would raise $469 billion in revenue over ten years. Plus, it would provide further incentive to purchase better miles per gallon vehicles, which will help the environment.

Investing in our infrastructure is needed and we should begin discussions early in the term of our next President. It is long overdue and will get even more people back to work, especially in areas where underemployment is higher.

A few interesting tidbits on renewable energy

As the attention nationwide continues for fracking for natural gas, in spite of the mound of evidence of environmental degradation, chemical leakage and vast water usage, we are seemingly ignoring the greener path which has and will continue to bear fruit in our nation. Many do not realize the significant progress that has been made on the renewable energy front. With kudos to my blogging friend Hugh Curtler, at http://www.hughcurtler.wordpress.com who instigated this post with one of his own, a few interesting tidbits on renewable energy that do not get played up enough are as follows:

  • There are more jobs in the US in the solar energy industry than in the coal industry. In 2013, there were over 140,000 solar energy related jobs. This has been reported by several sources and verified as true by Politifacts.
  • The state of California, if measured as a nation, would be the 7th most prolific solar energy country. It is the US leader by far in solar energy development.
  • The state of North Carolina had the second most solar energy development in the US in 2013 and is now the fourth most prolific solar energy state. Two NC companies of several that are gaining national and global notoriety are Semprius, who makes the most elegant solar photovoltaic panel in the world, and Strata Solar, who is a fast growing developer of solar panel installations.
  • In 2013, there were about 75,000 jobs in the wind energy industry. If we play our cards right, there could be over 500,000 wind energy jobs by 2030. Wind energy production has increased from 4 million megawatt hours in 1999 to 141 million megawatt hours in 2012.
  • The state of Texas has a relatively quiet wind energy boon going on which is creating jobs and electricity for its residents. Almost 10% of the electricity produced in Texas comes from wind energy and it is the clear leader in wind energy production in the United States.
  • The US Department of the Interior just announced that its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has defined three wind energy areas offshore North Carolina that total approximately 308,000 acres for potential commercial wind energy development. The entire eastern seaboard of the United States could be powered by wind off North Carolina.
  • Finally, one-fifth of the world electric energy production now comes from renewables.

Man influenced climate change is happening and I have seen reports that future models may understate the impact going forward. We need to move in a more aggressive way toward renewable solutions. As a business person and tax paying citizen, I feel that the greener paths will be more monetarily green than spending our dear water and air resources to dig vertical and horizontal holes in the ground to release limited supplies of natural gas.

Finally, it is not an either/ or issues on jobs, as the fossil fuel industry contends. Of course, there are jobs in the fossil fuel industry, but as shown above there are jobs in renewable energy creation. The solar and wind energy progress and positioning for future development is job creating and attractive to new industry.

Let’s stop the ill-fated fracking train and invest in the future.

And, the less than great bosses…

One of my more frequented posts is a “Tribute to a Great Boss” which I believe many folks check out as they want to see the attributes of someone who does the job well, as so many do not. This boss is also very humorous, so his many sayings are worth the read.* Yet, even though he was the best boss I ever had, he was not perfect. Nor are the many other bosses I have had the pleasure of working for. Some of their imperfections stood out more than others, but I have been blessed not to work for any screamers or tantrum throwers, which unfortunately exist.

My second favorite boss was a terrific story-teller and was supportive of me and others. His stories were so riveting, we would end up correcting them as he retold them again and again to new audiences. Our office flourished under him and the three years we worked together were memorable. Yet, his Achilles Heel was impulsive decisions and he left his role out of frustration, a decision he later regretted and put a strain on his marriage which ended in divorce. We missed him greatly after he left.

My favorite story of his is when he arrived at a meeting with someone he had not met before the administrative assistant had arrived. He was waved in and the guy proceeded to tell him about a legal problem. My boss is a great listener, so he is taking notes and is rapt with attention. When he finished his story, the guy said “What do you think I should do?” My boss said, “I think you should hire an attorney.” The guy looked at him and said “Who are you?” The guy had mistaken my boss for an attorney he had a meeting with next.

On the flip side, my first boss out of college was a great salesmen who was promoted to management, a very common mistake. Great salespeople do not necessarily make good managers. He was not an exception to this rule. He went out and bought 23 management books and read them all. One of his rules was to have a “quiet hour” from 9 am to 10 am, so no client calls or internal meetings could be had. Now, mind you, our business was to consult with clients, so not taking a call from them during that hour was not good for business. Eventually, the other senior folks in the office suggested he cease this practice. Unfortunately, he was asked to leave about six months after I got there, so the company lost a great salesman. We missed his excitement and passion to go see people.

I also had a boss that was a very good subject matter expert, but whose people’s skills left something to be desired. I learned a great deal from him both good and bad. I learned the subject matter in a practical way and he taught me how to dive into new things. Yet, I also learned how not to act as some of his mannerisms would make you feel awkward. He was like our Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” He is very smart and we remember him fondly in spite of his mannerisms. One of his shortcomings was small talk at client meetings. You wanted to make sure the meeting stayed focus on the issues. He was excellent with the issues. One of my favorite stories about him was in a client meeting when a key contact of our client was arguing over a legal issue with someone in the client’s general counsel office. My boss used both hands to inch the legal plan document over to the attorney and said what was written here says otherwise winning the argument for our contact. To see him push the document slowly over to the attorney was priceless.

One of my least favorite bosses was on the arrogant side, but he also was cheap. He would spend the company’s money on himself, but he would be quite frugal with his own money. An easy example is we would have year-end holiday parties at his house, with a secondary purpose to stock his liquor cabinet, as he would over order supplies. In spite of these traits, he had a congenial side and he contributed to our success, so we tolerated his behavior. We had a great run under his guidance, but it was more due to the caliber of people we had working under him. Yet, he would tell others in the firm how he harnessed these horses underneath him to achieve the success we had. That was a stretch.

Through my earlier years, I worked with a mentor who was one of the best consultants I ever worked with. He was never my boss, which is good, because he would have been horrible at it. He was a great consultant because he did not tolerate anything less than perfection. Unfortunately, no one is perfect, so he would have had issues with lesser talented people. I had to redo a lot of work at his suggestion. Yet, not being my boss, we could tease him about some of his habits to work very well with him. He was not my boss, but he had a great influence on my life and career. He is a lot like the final person I worked for at a small firm. He also pursued perfection on client issues and had a great reputation, but he was not a very good business person around time and expense management.

Each of these bosses I remember fondly to varying extents. I learned a lot from each, but none could be construed as perfect. Of course, neither could I.  I guess one piece of advice I would give to someone starting out is recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your boss and manage up. If you need face time to ask questions, schedule it. If your boss does not take the time to communicate well, help him or her using words comfortable to you. Also, where you can, discuss possible solutions and not just the problem.**  If you help this navigation process, then you can survive and flourish. And, don’t ever work for a screamer. If you do, keep your resume up to date and begin searching for a new job in case nothing is done about it.

* You can check out this post with the attached link: https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/tribute-to-a-great-boss/

** There is a great article called “Who’s Got the Monkey?” which will help you in managing up through offering possible solutions rather than passing the problem back to your boss.