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by Anna Rubenstein
Michael* would love to be earning the full minimum wage, but he’s far too affable to be indignant about $7 an hour.
“I’m very grateful for the job, and they’ve been very nice to me,” he said, staring out from his wire-rimmed glasses.
He refused to name the small, family-owned liquor store in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset district that has been employing him under the table this summer, and he asked to be kept anonymous as well. He doesn’t want anyone getting in trouble, he said.
I met Michael, a college-age, perpetually grinning Chinese-American man, in the cramped kitchen of a mutual friend on the blustery evening of the Fourth of July.
In the spirit of the holiday, he offered me a drink—cheap vodka in a plastic bottle—and mentioned offhandedly that he swiped it from the stockroom of his workplace.
“I don’t feel all that bad about it,” he chuckled.
The advantage to working there, he explains, is flexibility.
As a student, he is unable to work days and evening shifts at other businesses have been hard to come by in his area. So he agreed to stock shelves at the liquor store every day from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., for lack of better options.
His situation is by no means uncommon.
The California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement received roughly 5,000 complaints of wage theft from San Francisco workers over the last three years. The most common form of wage theft has been employees earning less than minimum wage, often equivalent to Michael’s $7 an hour or even less. Of workers reporting wage theft, 16 percent were in retail.
Workers who are paid less than minimum wage are frequently immigrants who speak little English. Michael, a U.S. citizen pursuing a degree in classical music, is none of these things.
Michael said that he would feel very differently about this job if it was his primary means of living. But while he finishes his education, he lives with his parents.
“All of the money is going towards my car or food,” he said.
In fact, Michael is the very profile of a worker whom critics of raising the minimum wage claim don’t need a wage increase: a part-time dependent working primarily for extra spending money.
But despite making only two-thirds of the current minimum wage, Michael is fairly nonchalant.
“They’re very lenient, and there are usually only two employees in the store at a time,” he said and shrugged. “It’s cool. I accept it. It’s almost as if they’re paying me for shits and giggles.”
*Michael is not his real name.