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Home arrow Opinion arrow Columns arrow Strawberry slime, and the one-way minimum wage

Strawberry slime, and the one-way minimum wage


My first paycheck was stained with a slime made of strawberry juice and Willamette Valley mud.

These ingredients were not combined in equal parts, though.

If the slime were, say, a martini, then the mud was the gin and the strawberry juice the vermouth.

I’m not sure where the olive and the swizzle stick fit here, but the analogy was of questionable taste anyway, so no matter.

At the end of the berry-picking season I had accumulated a stack of these tickets that seemed, to a 10-year-old, of impressive thickness.

I think the ticket paper was dyed a pale yellow, although my memory on this point is dim. The predominant color, in any case, was the scarlet-brown of that slime, which dried to a sort of grimy sheen. This produced an unpleasant rasp when one ticket slid against another. And if you happened to rub a finger across a ticket the sensation — smooth yet with a vestige of gritty stickiness — was gruesome. I can think of no better adjective, at any rate.

On the last day of picking, after my mom had arrived to fetch me and my older brother, we walked to the farmhouse (or maybe it was a barn) to cash out.

The farmer’s wife counted our tickets and laid in our grubby palms a pile of greenbacks so crisp and so flat they must have come straight from the bank.

And maybe fresh from the mint, too, for all I know.

Regardless, we had little time to savor the starched perfection of our personal fortunes. Mom confiscated the bills, lest they be swapped in short order for something tempting but ultimately useless. A bunch of those ice cream sundaes Dairy Queen used to serve in miniature plastic baseball helmets, perhaps.

Our wage, and I’m pretty confident I’m right on this point, was $1.25 per carrier. Two carriers makes one crate.

Now a crate of strawberries might not seem like any great number of strawberries when you buy it at a farmstand and put it in your trunk.

But when you trudge into a field at the dawn of a June day, with heavy dew still dripping from the leaves and pooling in the furrows, and the cuffs of your Tuffskin jeans already damp, an empty crate is a great vastness.

I was a pretty fair picker — neither one of the showoffs who ate their lunch sandwiches with one hand while the other was plucking berries, nor a slouch who spent most of the day basking in the sunshine and chatting up the pretty girl in the next row. On a fine day, with sunshine and the bushes thick with big fruit, I might fill a dozen crates.

Thirty bucks is good money for a 10-year-old, to be sure. Especially in 1980, when gas cost $1.25 a gallon and you could see a movie for about the same price.

I’ve been thinking just lately about those distant days, and about my first real job, as I read the various opinions about Oregon’s minimum wage.

Nine years ago the state’s voters decided to tie that wage to inflation.

When the consumer price index goes up, so does the minimum wage. On Jan. 1 the wage rose from $8.50 per hour to $8.80. That’s the second-highest among the states that set their own minimum wage (exceeded only by Washington’s $9.04), and a veritable windfall compared with the federal rate of $7.25.

Oregon’s system is at least logical.

Inflation, especially when it affects necessities such as food and housing, has a disproportionate effect on the lowest-paid workers.

Oregon’s adjustable minimum wage helps to keep those workers’ buying power intact.

Yet that flexibility works in only one direction: Up.

If the economy founders and prices for some products drop — which, as we’ve learned recently, is possible — the minimum wage doesn’t follow.

The wage can stay where it is — as happened in 2010 — but it can’t shrink.

I’m not convinced this necessarily benefits every minimum-wage worker.

Business owners who are struggling might well need to trim their payroll expenses.

But if they can’t do that by reducing wages, their only other option could be to lay off employees. Or shut down.

Suffice it to say that for those unfortunate workers, losing, say, a quarter an hour is less painful than losing a job.

Notwithstanding such pitfalls, Oregon’s minimum wage law probably garners more publicity than it deserves.

State officials estimate that only about 10 percent of Oregon workers are paid the minimum wage.

Even accounting for employees who earn slightly more than the minimum wage, some of whom receive a raise when the minimum wage rises, the yearly increases that voters mandated directly affect a relatively small minority of Oregon’s labor force.

(Whether mandatory wage hikes also boost prices, something that applies to all customers regardless of income, is another matter.)

None of this, of course, has much to do, in any obvious way, with my anecdotes about picking strawberries.

The minimum wage for that job was zero.

And rightfully so.

No farmer could last long who paid people to do nothing but sit in a field all day, letting a valuable crop wither.

Picking strawberries was in a sense the purest sort of wage work: How much you earned depended solely on how much you alone produced with the sweat of your brow.

(Or, more appropriately, the slime of your hands.)

Most jobs aren’t like that, of course — not even the increasingly rare assembly line work that at least has the flavor of the fruit harvest.

Yet it seems to me that Oregon’s minimum wage system, with its one-way-only approach, is a bit too loosely linked to economic reality.

We’ve decided as Oregon voters that the flood tide of inflation should automatically deposit something of value on some workers’ beaches. Perhaps we ought then to reconsider the wisdom of pretending that the inevitable ebb tides don’t pull wealth, and jobs, back into the dark fathoms of the economic sea.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.

 
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