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Indispensable Low-Wage Workers

David Callahan

Here's something alarming to imagine: One day, your investment advisor at Merrill Lynch doesn't show up to his job. No warning, no nothing. He just doesn't show. 

Oh, wait a minute: You only talk to that advisor a few times a year? And, in fact, you have no idea whether he's at the office on any given day? I guess that makes sense. The same is probably true of your lawyer, dentist, dermatologist, and other six-figure professionals in your life. Unless the market's crashing or you're thrown in jail or you have a crazy toothache, you probably can live without these folks most days. 

But let's say that your elderly mother calls early in the morning when you're getting ready for work: Her home healthcare aide hasn't arrived. No call, no nothing. And without that aide, she can't even go to the bathroom. There goes your work day. Ditto if you're packing your briefcase and your nanny calls in sick. 

Or imagine your office is throwing a fancy lunch for important prospective clients, but the guy delivering the food decides to toss it in the trash right before the lunch because he's pissed off about only being paid in tips. 

Or you step outside to go to a crucial meeting, but the taxi drivers have gone on a surprise strike. Or you get to the airport, but there are no baggage handlers. 

You get the picture. There is so much in our lives that hinges on the lowest paid workers in America showing up every day and doing their jobs. Which raises the obvious question: If these people are so crucial to making our lives work, why are they so poorly paid?

We all know the answer, of course: Because these workers are not worth more in the labor market. Sure, the home health aide may not show up one day, but there are twenty other people ready to take her place at the same pay. And Mexican guys with battered mountain bikes are just lining up outside of delis ready to deliver sandwiches for tips only. 

Point taken. But, actually, the supply-and-demand argument misses a basic truth about civilization -- which is that it's a team sport. Yes, there may be many people ready to take over at second base if your second baseman doesn't show up and it's certainly not like trying to find a good pitcher. Still, you'd never think of not having someone at second.

So, if civilization is a team sport, where every position is crucial, how much disparity is okay when it comes to valuing these different positions? I'd say the right answer is some disparity. Yes, it seems fair to pay the pitcher more than the second basemen because he could take his golden arm elsewhere. 

But can we imagine a well-functioning team where the pitcher goes back to a luxury locker room, while we expect the second baseman to change in his car? Or where the team doctor only sees to the injuries of the pitcher and other high valued players? 

Well, that's pretty much the situation we have right now. We expect a bunch of crucial positions in the economy to be always filled, and our lives would be disprupted if they weren't, but we don't insist on a basic and humane level of security for everyone on the team: health insurance, a pension, and enough money to afford housing.

As I've said here before, the low-wage jobs crisis is not just about the people stuck in these jobs, "them." It's also about everyone who's lives are entwined with these workers in an interdependent society.