By Martin Rothenberg
Opinion Today, Syracuse Post-Standard, May 31, 2012
I have been a small business owner in Syracuse since 1991. My first company, Syracuse Language Systems, developed and sold multimedia software, and grew from a start-up with a few employees to 120 employees when it was sold. My present company, Glottal Enterprises, makes medical electronics for speech and voice diagnosis and correction that is sold worldwide. It presently has five employees, but we are growing.
Neither company has ever seen fit to pay only the minimum wage. As I found out quickly at Syracuse Language, an employee who is grossly underpaid is constantly reading the help-wanted ads and is not invested in the company. It is not good business to attempt to hire at the present minimum wage.
But I realize that some companies feel a competitive pressure to keep employee compensation at an absolute minimum, even if it makes no sense business-wise in the long run. In fact, if the company is publicly owned, a manager may feel pressure from stockholders to do so - especially stockholders who see the company more as a short-term gambling chip than as a long-term investment. That is where a minimum wage comes in. It tells an employer that his or her competitor cannot use grossly substandard wages to get a competitive advantage.
I would like to illustrate my testimony with a story from my past. As an 18-year-old-television repair technician, I had occasion to work with a World War II veteran a little older than I who was raised on a farm in the Midwest but moved to New York City after the war to get married. During the war he had been a Forward Observer in Europe, directing artillery fire from behind enemy lines. He was awarded a Silver Star for valor in an incident in which he put his own life at risk to save the lives of many of his comrades. I would trust him with my own life. Let's call him John.
John was a good worker, efficient and responsible, but I noticed that he occasionally took replacement parts from our employer to service his own customers on the weekend. One day, out on a service call, I asked him if that was not stealing from our employer. He answered frankly that his salary was not a living wage, and that he had a wife and child to support. He said that he felt compelled to consider the parts he took as part of his compensation.
His answer was a lesson that I never forgot. Employees know when they are being taken advantage of. Of course, even though they are being taken advantage of, most employees don't resort to stealing from the employer. Instead, they struggle to make ends meet as best they can by working multiple jobs, keeping the heat off to pay the rent, or by relying on food banks or food stamps to cover what their paycheck should, but does not.
The minimum wage would be over $10 per hour if it had kept pace with the cost of living. The $8.50 asked for in the bill the state Legislature is considering is a step in the right direction that should not be delayed. It would help level the playing field for Central New York companies. It will put money in the hands of New Yorkers who will put it right back into local businesses, buying the goods and services they need, but can't afford on the current minimum wage. It would help the workers, the businesses and our state economy.
Martin Rothenberg lives in Jamesville. The was adapted from Rothenberg's testimony at a state legislative hearing on the proposed minimum wage hike held last month in Syracuse's City Hall.
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