Wage war

Two dozen protesters outside Wendy's in Ashland Thursday called for raising the minimum wage to $15, arguing that workers could then pay the rent, get off food stamps, have disposable income and boost the local economy.

In freezing cold, protesters chanted, "Low pay is not OK" and "We can't survive on $8.95."

One sign showed a weeping Wendy and the words, "Wendy can't pay her rent on minimum wage."

Many passing cars on Highway 66 honked and gave a thumbs-up, but a few motorists gave a thumbs-down to the protesters, who represented Jobs for Justice, Southern Oregon Action and the Southern Oregon University Associated Students, among other groups.

Several food stamp caseworkers from the adjacent office of the state Department of Human Services picketed on their lunch hour and said most fast-food workers are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).

"Most clients, part-time and full-time, are on minimum wage, especially if they have children," said caseworker Claudio Villa.

"Paying fast-food workers minimum wage creates more people on food assistance programs," said caseworker Garilynn Cullotta, "and that means we're all being taxed to subsidize corporations for $6.5 billion."

Army veteran Keith Haxton said, "Fast-food workers live in poverty without access to food."

"There's no way you can support yourself," said protester Carol Ferguson, "especially if you have children. What are you supposed to do? It segregates lower-income people at a lower socio-economic level and they can't bring themselves up."

Graphic designer Jason Houck said the economy trickles upward. "If you raise the minimum wage, it pushes the market up. People have more money, it increases the economy and inspires spending."

Oregon's minimum wage, the second highest in the nation, is $8.95 and will rise to $9.10 on Jan. 1. The national minimum is $7.25 and has been at that level since the start of the Great Recession.

The protests have been staged at many fast-food chains nationwide all year.

Denny Lynch, a spokesman at Wendy's headquarters in Ohio, disputed the notion that all workers are at minimum wage.

"Nine out of 10 employees make about minimum wage," said Lynch, "and, since all franchisees set their own wages, Wendy's can't tell them what to pay. They do have to comply with state and federal minimum wage, of course."

Lynch released a statement on the protests, saying only that Wendy's is proud to help people who want to work and, as entry-level employees, learn important business and personal skills.

"They can either grow with us or move onto another career," the release said.

SOU Vice President of Associated Students Max Goldman said, "Low wages stagnate the local economy and profits migrate out of here. It's a serious problem because this disables the Ashland economy."

If the minimum wage were jumped to $15, it would force wages to rise in entry-level jobs in the manufacturing sector, "with an impact that they would lose their competitive advantage in the global market," said Ron Fox, executive director of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development.

Under Oregon's new minimum wage, workers would get about $19,000 a year. Skilled manufacturing workers earn about $35,000, Fox said. If you boost the minimum wage to $15, "you ratchet up the next skill level and put upward pressure on wages, so business would be less able to complete."

Sandra Slattery, executive director of Ashland Chamber of Commerce, said such a leap in the minimum wage would be "incredibly difficult and result in job losses."

"Labor is such a huge cost of doing business, it would have a negative effect on being able to hire people," she said.

Wendy's employees declined to comment, as did the Medford office of the franchisee, Walt Stallcup. The office declined to give out his contact information.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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