The Other Side of $15 Part 3

Beware of strangers bearing gifts

The following is part 3 of an on-going series. The first part dealt with the immediate impact on business costs and barrier to entry; part 2 looked into the result of $15 per hour in the New York restaurant business. This section will cover big box retailers pushing for higher minimum wage in 2019. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

If you recall from part 1, the sudden spike in labor cost creates an immediate burden on lower paying employers. In the case of my fictional restaurant (and later shown in real life results in part 2), hours are cut, prices increase, and in some cases layoffs occur. Considering all of this, I was (at first) surprised to see big box retailers like Walmart calling for a $15 minimum wage.

This past summer, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon called out the federal government for the minimum wage being “too low:”

“The federal minimum wage is lagging behind,” Doug McMillon said at Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas on Wednesday. 
Congress has not raised the minimum wage since 2009, but McMillon’s surprise comments may give lawmakers an incentive to act. McMillon’s call may also ease pressure on Walmart. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, along with workers’ rights groups, have called on Walmart to raise its wages above the company’s current $11-an-hour minimum.

As of 2010, Walmart employs 1.4 million Americans – 1% of the country’s working population. Certainly not all of them are wage employees, but the number of wage earners is large enough that Walmart will absolutely feel the increase (again, these are 2010 numbers, so the number of employees could even be greater). Even if 1 million of the 1.4 million are wage earners, a few-dollar increase per hour quickly translates to millions of dollars per hour in labor costs. That’s huge! So why publicly push for $15 at such a great company expense? (It’s also worth noting here that when Walmart bumped hourly wages up to $11 per hour last year, they also closed numerous Sam’s Club stores at the same time.)

A reactionary thought is that it’s good PR. Just like politicians calling for a “living wage” of $15 per hour for the good of the people, Walmart leading the charge for $15 per hour gives a boost to public perception: Walmart cares about its employees. Walmart is listening to the people. You can make a living working at Walmart. Walmart and Amazon have become targets of the $15 per hour camp as of late. By embracing the higher minimum wage, it relieves public pressure and image tarnishing.

A second potential reason for hiking wages could be inter-company competition. Amazon and Costco have both recently upped their hourly wage to $15. Amazon claims they are not caving to pressure from Senator Bernie Sanders but doing it for the good of their employees. Their increase will impact 350,000 full-time, part-time, and seasonal workers. Costco raised their wage to $15 this past March. Perhaps it’s about staying competitive with other big box retailers. I can see how no one wants to be caught as the lesser-paying and risk losing employees to the other.

But there’s something else at work here. If it really were about public relations, saving face, and remaining competitive among large retailers, why would these companies champion a national minimum wage hike to $15? If anything, being able to pay $15 when smaller competitors cannot or aren’t willing gives Walmart and Amazon an advantage in the labor pool. In the quote above, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon is pushing for a $15 per hour federal minimum wage. Jay Carney, senior vice president of Amazon’s global corporate affairs, declares that Amazon “will be working to gain congressional support for an increase in the federal minimum wage” and to “advocate for a minimum wage increase that will have a profound impact on the lives of tens of millions of people and families across this country.” In March 2019, McDonald’s ended their lobbying against a $15 per hour national minimum wage.

These companies are free to pay their workers $15 per hour and set an example for others, so why do they want to push it on the entire country? There’s really only one reason.

To crush their competitors.

Walmart and Amazon can afford to absorb the cost of $15 per hour. They can also afford to invest in automation or to cut hours from large store rosters. If need be, they can even close a store or two — as Walmart did in 2018 when they raised their wage to $11. Small businesses cannot afford to do these things.

Imagine Bob’s Discount Bunker is a small chain of discount retail stores. Maybe their prices are competitive to Walmart, or they have stores where Walmart doesn’t. One of the ways they can price their products lower than Walmart is lower labor costs. If these costs are raised on par with Walmart’s, that means Bob’s can no longer afford to charge lower prices. Or they go out of business altogether after a death spiral, like our fictional restaurant. Either way, the higher wage is severely disruptive to smaller competitors; it saddles them with more expensive labor.

Why else would these large corporations be willing to absorb such huge labor cost increases? By flipping the script and embracing the higher minimum wage, politicians and labor advocates are doing big companies a favor.

After the field of competitors is wiped out, big box retailers can then either raise their prices, induce layoffs, or replace workers with automation to bring their labor costs back down. As a CNN article entitled “Why Big Business is Giving Up Its Fight Against a Higher Minimum Wage” puts it:

Although the wage premium for working at a large company has decreased over time, big businesses still achieve economies of scale through centralized HR and benefits departments. They also have the upfront capital needed to invest in automation, such as the purchasing kiosks now in place at McDonalds, that will make businesses less subject to labor costs in the future.

When it’s all said and done, Bob’s Discount Bunker employees will likely be looking for jobs at Walmart or Amazon.

In the case of McDonald’s, it’s not the company that feels the increase of $15 per hour, it’s the franchise owner that the employees work for. As of 2016, 85% of the company’s restaurants were franchisee-run locations. This means they’re not owned by McDonald’s, but by a private business owner who pays McDonald’s a monthly franchise fee to use the name, logo, menu, etc. and purchases their stock directly from the company. It’s up to the franchisee to hire and pay employees. This makes the argument for McDonald’s being able to afford to pay their employees more somewhat disjointed: advocates look at McDonald’s annual company profits when it’s likely not McDonald’s paying their wages. McDonald’s, after all, is really a real estate company. Their primary income and tax breaks revolve around property. So a $15 minimum wage would still impact their competitors, but the franchisees are left footing the bill for the labor.

In the end, the government is just making large companies stronger by raising the wage to $15 per hour. It becomes a win-win-win scenario for Walmart, Amazon, or McDonald’s. It’s a win with the power of the federal government making the decision, coercing all employers in the country to abide by the increased national minimum wage — whether they can afford it or not. It’s a win because it’s good PR, allowing these companies to look like advocates for the common worker. And it’s a win because it wipes out competition and potential future threats.

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