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Language arts

In the minimum wage debate, restaurateurs are losing the war of words. It’s time to flip the script.

Let it be noted for the record that Judge Judy doesn’t take kindly to special requests. I was sentenced to 90 days of silence before I could even plead for judgment of the public argument riling restaurants these days. And that was by one of her handlers. Judy herself was leaning toward prison time.

Which is why the job of playing Solomon in the court of public opinion has fallen on you, dear reader. Put aside your prejudices and strive for complete impartiality in deciding who is mustering the better case on an important question of right and wrong.

On one side are plaintiffs saying they won’t compromise on the well-being of their families. They’re seeking dispensation for being shortchanged on the hard work they’re performing, day in and day out. Isn’t it only right they be compensated justly, so they can feed their children and taste the American dream?

The other side counters that higher wages would eat into their profits and leave less money to be distributed among their fat cat investors, who are quick to issue pink slips these days. If labor costs get too high, restaurant executives could lose their six-figure jobs!

Then there’s the unfairness of expecting consumers to pay a buck or two more when they dine out, a necessity if the minimum wage should skyrocket. How can a burden like that be tolerated by a just society?

Clearly the restaurant industry has a language problem. When the issue of raising wages spills into public discourse, proponents talk about social injustice and lifting people out of poverty. Opponents—that’d be you—express outrage because someone is trying to pare their wealth.

Industry representatives couldn’t do a worse job of winning hearts and minds if they wore puppy-skin suits. They’re letting the argument over wage increases be framed in such a way that only Scrooge and Gordon Gekko would be conflicted. Do you side with unbridled greed, or with efforts by the less fortunate to better themselves through work?

The industry needs a vocabulary reset to explain why there’s more negative fallout to a dizzying hike in wages than pressure on employers’ margins.

At the very least, it could point to what’s happened in San Francisco, one of the jurisdictions adopting a so-called living wage. Two restaurants, Abbot’s Cellar and Luna Park, have already closed, saying they can’t afford the $12.25 an hour that becomes the mandated minimum on May 1 on the way to $15.

Will people benefitting from the hike have an opportunity to earn it?

The industry needs to stress opportunity and the apprenticeship-like nature of restaurant careers. No one bashes pro baseball for paying so little to Double A players. That’s viewed as part of the passage to multimillion-dollar dream jobs, the dues required for delayed big-time pay.

The restaurant industry can tell a similar story, spin-free. Indeed, this issue abounds in testimonials. You’ll read in our Power 20 report about multigenerational restaurant families. No doubt many of the clansmen started off with a broom in hand and rarely more than a few bucks to stuff in their pockets on payday—if they could wheedle anything from parents who’d worked for scratch on their way up. Now they’re sharing in multimillion-dollar dynasties.

The industry has to show its commitment to giving people a boost up the economic ladder, albeit in a uniquely deferred way. The debate has to be recast to stress long-term opportunity instead of short-term profits.

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