By Emma Frith
Joe Biden has been the new US President for less than a month, but he has already got to work with putting new policies into place. With his proposed minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, debate has ensued as to who exactly should receive this, as well as what it means to be an “unskilled” worker.
Similar to many of Biden’s other anticipated political projects, this idea leans into changes made by Barack Obama during his 8-year presidency. Obama managed to raise minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, and Biden hopes to raise this even further as part of his new Covid relief plan. Given Biden’s aims to increase minimum wage by over double what is was in the early days of Obama’s presidency, his promises have not been without backlash from republicans and social media users.
Outlining the mentality
Many Twitter users have been discussing the potential consequences of raising minimum wages in capitalist nations such as the US. In particular, many have expressed disdain at the idea of people who work supposedly “unskilled” jobs receiving a pay raise. This is shown by a now deleted tweet from a self-proclaimed “independent and conservative” twitter user, who claimed that raising minimum wage to $15 would mean that people who work in tech support would earn as much as “your local McDonalds Burger flipper”, and, therefore, this is a bad thing. In short, the implication is that there are some jobs that are worth higher pay than others and further some that simply are not.
“Unskilled” but essential
A term that has been associated with these jobs is “unskilled” due to the supposed correlation between being of a lower skill set and being paid less than other jobs. This concept is not only a dangerous way to quantify how “skilled” a job is, it is also completely incorrect. Unfortunately, this mentality is not strictly applicable to America; according to fullfact.org, Britain’s newest immigration system states that a job is deemed unskilled if the worker earns less than £25.6k a year. This, according to the site, would then include jobs such as “nurses, paramedics, midwives, radiographers [and] care assistants”.
The main implication of such a mentality is that people have tended to conflate what they deem to be “unskilled” with “less difficult”. This seems misguided to say the least, as many jobs that fall under this bracket are not unskilled in the slightest: many nurses have university degrees that required them to, not only take exams and attend lectures, but complete months of unpaid placement tasks, where one shift will last considerably longer than your typical 8-hour working day. Having had friends at university who are healthcare students, I personally learnt very quickly that there is a level of mental strength, as well as extreme empathy and determination, that comes with pursuing this kind of career. It is precisely these kinds of skills and strengths that are ignored by those to whom these professions are deemed “unskilled”.
In times like these, such jobs that are often paid lower are infinitely important. “Key workers” has become somewhat of a buzz phrase this last year or so, and there is no better way to describe how vital the efforts of “unskilled” healthcare workers has been during the pandemic. All of this begs many questions: when will “clapping for carers” become “pay rises for paramedics”? And why are workers who are deemed essential not given a wage that truly reflects not only their skillset, but also both their physical and mental strength, particularly at a time when the NHS is under such immense pressure?
“Anyone can flip a burger”
McDonald’s previous CEO in the UK earned just over £12m in 2019, whereas the average crew member currently earns £8.81 an hour, equating to $15.5k per year. Many twitter users have come together to agree that working at McDonald’s is the hardest job they have ever had for a plethora of reasons in comparison with the current, higher paying jobs they now have (see this tweet or this tweet, for example). Furthermore, McDonald’s is just one example of one of the many food restaurants that have stayed open throughout the pandemic, whether for delivery or otherwise, forcing many to work at a time where other people are told to stay at home, being forced to choose between potential covid exposure or unemployment.
What the Twitter discourse has more generally shown is how many unanimously agree that lower paid jobs are often the most difficult. Perceiving jobs such as a “McDonald’s burger flipper” or a healthcare worker as low or unskilled fails to acknowledge how physically and mentally demanding jobs like these can be for those who do them. More importantly, this entire view focuses its outrage at the wrong issue: rather than be outraged that McDonald’s workers might be getting a pay rise equal to that of other professions, we should be outraged as to why such a wage disparity exists in the first place.
This anger, when better understood, should be aimed towards why CEOs make so much more than employees who work in dangerous and stressful conditions at the best of times, now with the added risk of covid. Many such employees are not only unable to, but do not get the option to work from home. If anything, people should think about the gravity of these workers’ situations, both in general and during the pandemic in particular, before ordering a big mac to then call the person who served it to them “unskilled” on Twitter afterwards.