I remember my first job as though it were yesterday. I was probably ten or eleven years old when I got hired. Now I have to admit that I had an “in” getting the position. My father ran the company.
On many Saturdays my father would go in to his office and take me along with him. I particularly enjoyed that on days when it was raining and the prospect of spending time in Central Park on the swings had little appeal. (That was back in the day when a youngster like myself was freely allowed to swing on these wonderful contraptions, before we viewed this as a life threatening exercise and prior to the time when we considered parents who permitted this to be guilty of child abuse and neglect). Incidentally, with the hundreds of times I played on the swings I never suffered any injury which exactly mirrored the experience of my friends and classmates who similarly played on them.
There we were at Dad’s office. There was no hustle and bustle as on a normal workday. At most there were four or five employees in the whole place. Mr. Chen, who wired lamps, might come in if Dad had received an influx of orders resulting from one of the trade shows that occurred around the country on a monthly basis. I adored Mr. Chen. He taught me to count to ten in Cantonese and showed me how to wire a vase and turn it into a lamp. Under his close supervision I probably made forty or fifty lamps over the years.
I also liked Carmine who was in charge of the shipping department. He would let me follow him, watching him pick inventory from the metal shelves which housed it, placing each item on one of the carts used to transport the merchandise until the order was complete and ready to go to the packers. After following him over the course of several Saturdays, it occurred to me that I could pull the inventory and asked him if he would let me fill a small order – just to prove that I could. After a moment’s hesitation he agreed.
And so off I went with my order and my cart. By this time I knew in which rows various of the items could be found. My biggest challenge was reading the handwriting of some of Dad’s salespeople – who would have gotten extra attention from my grammar school teachers who still believed that “neatness counts.” The other challenge was that the inventory racks were quite high – and one of the items was on the top shelf – way too high for me to reach safely – either for me or the vase. So I filled the rest of the order and told Carmine that I had left the cart in front of the remaining item but couldn’t get it down. He smiled at me, I think recognizing that I had been prudent, walked over to the rack and finished the order. After that he allowed me to help him whenever I asked to do so.
But my favorite department was billing. Generally, the department was quiet on Saturdays. But I had gotten an education in how to use the billing machines during a school break from the woman who was in charge of the department. Her name was Rachael. She had gorgeous black hair and a beautiful smile and was one of the most warm and friendly people I had ever met. I asked my father why she was never there on Saturdays.
Dad explained that she was a Sabra, born in what was then Palestine and was an Orthodox Jew. My father explained that Saturday was the end of her weekly Sabbath and that she was not permitted to do any work on the Sabbath. My father also explained that he let her go home earlier than usual on Fridays, particularly during the winter, so she could get home before the Sabbath began.
Rachael had fought in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. That explained the ugly scar that extended down from the left side of her neck to below her very conservative dress. That wound had happened as a result of her being in the wrong place when one of the Palestinians used a flame thrower against her. In that same attack her brother had been burned so badly that he died as a result of his wounds. So I only got to see Rachael occasionally. But when my father knew that he would be bringing me to the office, she always gathered a number of orders that were ready for billing so that I could keep myself occupied.
Saturdays at Dad’s office usually started at around eight in the morning and by noon he had caught up with his paperwork and was ready to call it a day. That meant I was going to get paid for my efforts. That compensation took the form of lunch at Vito’s, two doors down from our office. Since I’m pretty sure that my father would have fed me anyway, I guessed that I was really working for free. But that was okay with me since I felt that I was getting on the job training and was, in some indirect way, helping out and making the business more successful.
Vito’s was – well, it was a dump – but the food was terrific. Vito had figured out that the truck drivers and office workers who worked in the neighborhood and patronized his restaurant were more interested in getting a good meal at a good price than they were in ambiance. And there was no better food than one of Vito’s meatball sandwiches served in a crusty Italian roll and slathered with a generous helping of his homemade marinara sauce. This was not food for the chic because there was no way to consume it without getting sauce on your chin and fingers. Notwithstanding, I think even Emily Post would have approved of a meal at Vito’s.
I hadn’t really thought much about my first job experience until yesterday when I read that San Francisco had voted to phase in a minimum wage of $15.00 per hour over the next few years. As I thought about it, my father probably violated Federal and NY state child labor laws not to mention the minimum wage laws which were in effect at the time. While I was unaware of these back then, I am glad to report that despite this parental “abuse” I didn’t suffer any permanent psychological or other damage as a result. I didn’t realize that my father was taking advantage of me. I actually looked at the experience as providing me with an education in how business worked. As it turned out, those Saturdays at my father’s office helped me in my own business many years later.
Now I realize there are divergent views on whether raising the minimum wage is a good or a bad thing. Those who support increasing the minimum wage make arguments that include “paying a livable wage is a fundamental matter of equity” and often characterize those with a different view as being “cold, heartless people who put profits over people.” Together with that assessment is the implied or stated view that these same people would be perfectly happy if all these minimum wage workers just died. Of course, that takes the issue beyond the boundaries of having a real debate on the merits or demerits of such a raise and turns it into a name-calling event.
Let’s set aside the counter-argument that any raise in the minimum wage will result in further automation of some of those positions, meaning that there will be fewer workers earning more – or, in fact, anything – and focus on the purported cupidity of businesses – interested in maximizing profits – even at the expense of personnel. If we accept the credo that businesses are simply motivated by profit, we need to consider what the net cost of a wage increase does to the bottom line.
Wages are a fully deductible expense to a business – so any increase in the minimum wage would, to some extent, be offset by a reduction in state and federal income taxes that would be collected. Perhaps more importantly, we hear anecdotal stories about minimum wage workers who are unable to make it on the income from their employment and who qualify for various welfare programs. Wouldn’t raising their hourly rate potentially exclude some of them from being the continuing beneficiaries of these programs – thus saving not only their employing companies but all taxpayers from providing these benefits? If that’s the case, the intelligent business person should eagerly embrace such a wage increase.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in the minimum wage argument is that it suggests by the mere act of guaranteeing a higher minimum wage, whatever that number might be, it will impel the country into a new age of prosperity. If that were the case, we could eliminate world poverty by suggesting to the governments of Mexico, Sri Lanka and Liberia among others, that they adopt an American style minimum wage for all their citizens.
The citizens of San Francisco voted in this minimum wage increase overwhelmingly. They also returned Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a staunch advocate of the measure, to the House with 82.4% of the vote. I wonder why she never thought of my simple solution to world poverty herself.