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Why workers are phoning it in

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One of today’s biggest news items has to do with new California legislation that may mean an increase in the minimum wage paid to workers in fast-food restaurants.

The law doesn’t actually increase the minimum wage. It creates a “Fast Food Council,” consisting of workers, management, and two state officials, that will rule on worker safety and health considerations.

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It may also set a new minimum wage for fast-food workers. The upper limit is $22 per hour, as opposed to California’s current statewide minimum wage of $15.50. The wage would apply to chains with more than 100 locations nationwide.

The measure aroused fierce opposition from industry interests such as McDonald’s, whose president, Joe Erlinger, has argued that it unfairly targets larger restaurant businesses, like, for example, his own.

“If it’s essential to increase restaurant workers’ wages and protect their welfare—and it is—shouldn’t all restaurant workers benefit?” said Erlinger.

From this, one might reach the not-necessarily-correct conclusion that Erlinger would support legislation mandating a $22 minimum wage for all restaurant employees.

Legislation of this kind should be viewed in the background of a wider concern in the human resources world: “quiet quitting.”

“Some feel the catchphrase, popularized on TikTok, is about doing the bare minimum at your job, including avoiding overtime and tasks outside your job description as well as limiting engagement at work, such as switching off devices and logging off after work hours,” writes Tom Ryan on Retail Wire. 

“Unfortunately, most employees remain disengaged at work. In fact, low engagement alone costs the global economy $7.8 trillion,” says Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report.

The principal cause for this disengagement is clear to me: decades of stagnant or declining real wages in many sectors.

In this respect, farm labor fares better than most. A recently released report from USDA’s Economic Research Service entitled Adjusting to Higher Labor Costs in Selected U.S. Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Industries, says, “Farm labor wage rates—measured by real farm earnings—increased faster than nonfarm rates (16 percent compared with 5 percent) from 2000 to 2019.”

For the workforce at large, dissatisfaction with stagnant wages, which seethed for years, has expressed itself first in the Great Resignation and now in the form of quiet quitting.

It has also led to increased strikes and unionization activity.

Another catchphrase that has emerged from the current discourse is “phoning it in”—doing something with little enthusiasm or effort.

In a comment to the Retail Wire article, Nikki Baird, vice-president of strategy for Aptos, a retail software company, writes, “If you’re going to pay $7/hour, then you’re going to get $7/hour worth of work—that’s happened in retail for decades, especially for front-line employees where there is very little available to them in terms of payoff for hustle culture anyway.

“Employers who are worried about the negative impacts of widespread acceptance of ‘phoning it in’ culture are pretty out of touch with what they do and don’t get out of those associates already,” Baird continues.

“You get what you pay for” doesn’t necessarily apply in all circumstances. But when it comes to human effort and motivation, it is a pretty good guide to what you should expect.

As we can see from another current catchphrase: “acting your wage.”



Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.