Last week, Zingerman’s co-owner Paul Saginaw visited Washington, D.C. to lobby Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez for an increase in minimum wage. But on Thursday, D.C. came to Zingerman’s.
Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.), joined by state Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) and state Rep. Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor), ate a late lunch with Zingerman’s employees and local business owners to discuss actions on the federal and state level to raise the minimum wage.
Dingell, who is a co-sponsor of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, said a local business coming to Washington to share its views testifies to the importance of the issue.
“It says that there’s conviction there, which is sufficient to cause a very substantial expenditure to inform the Congress of what Zingerman’s and what Mr. Saginaw, who made the trip, thinks is the need of the country,” Dingell said.
While Dingell praised Zingerman’s for its food, he continually acknowledged the deli as a leader in the fight for increased wages by setting a good example for other businesses: the restaurant pays its employees above minimum wage.
Roughly 10 Zingerman’s employees gathered around a table to voice their support for a wage increase and to ask what their representatives were doing to bring about the change.
Irwin and Zemke both cited their co-sponsorship of state House Bill 4386 as the concrete action they are taking to increase wages. If passed, the bill would raise the minimum wage in the state of Michigan from $7.40 to $9 per hour. While the representatives were pessimistic about the bill’s chances, Zemke said he was hopeful that it would pass in the future if a Democrat wins the gubernatorial election in November.
“More than just locally, I think this is going to be a huge campaign issue, quite frankly,” Zemke said. “My hope is that former congressman Mark Schauer gets elected governor, and he has made it a point of his campaign to increase the minimum wage to $9.25.”
Bess Anderson, who has worked at Zingerman’s for five months, said an increase in minimum wage would lead to a significant improvement in people’s lifestyles.
“A dollar an hour can change my life significantly from the way I think about grocery shopping to what I can do for my family,” Anderson said.
Many of the employees discussed their concerns about low minimum wage in the context of student loans and going back to school, adding that minimum wage job is not enough to pay for higher education.
Mike Varney, who has worked at Zingerman’s for six months, said he has heard arguments alleging that those who work for minimum wage are lazy because they choose to work rather than pursue a higher education.
“It’s sort of a slap in the face because when I look around this table, I see every person who’s working here is the opposite of lazy,” Varney said. “Just because the amount of money you make per hour is lower than someone else’s doesn’t make you lazy. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. You’re doing a job that nobody else wants to do for $7.50 an hour.”
Sanford Bledsoe, owner of The Espresso Bar in Kerrytown, said though his business is young, he has managed to pay his employees consistently above minimum wage. He said his decision to pay his employees an increased wage stems from his observations of employees at chain coffee shops.
“People who work in coffee shops do not usually make much money. It’s eight or nine hours standing on your feet, living off a diet of pastries. It’s not a sustainable job, so I said I’m going to try and make it one,” Bledsoe said.
Dingell said hearing the stories of Zingerman’s employees made him hopeful that other businesses will follow in their footsteps to help improve hourly employees’ economic state.
“You’ve got to admire them and you’ve got to admire Zingerman’s,” Dingell said. “They are an honest, caring bunch of people who want to see to it that we do something which betters the society. They also want to do something that betters the economy.”