State law allows students to be paid less than minimum wage

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Minimum wage. It’s the dreaded topic that makes employers’ toes curl, employees’ tempers flare, and labor bureaus’ payrolls soar. We all want to avoid the idea of the dreaded minimum wage: Employees want to avoid being paid the least amount possible under law; employers want to avoid dealing with said low-paid, disgruntled employees. But what does it say when employees are paid lower than low — below minimum wage?

In Pennsylvania, according to the Bureau of Labor Law Compliance’s “Minimum Wage Law Summary,” employees can legally be paid below minimum wage. Well, not just any employees: This exception to the law applies specifically to employees-in-training, employees that work somewhere where there are 10 or less full-time workers, and — that’s right — high school and college students.

The employees-in-training rule specifies that the employee-in-training can be paid $5.85 as long as they are under 20 years of age, and only for the first 60 days of employment. One problem with this rule, however, is that there seems to be no way to check if an employer is actually training an employee for these first 60 days, or whether he or she is just taking advantage of this exception to the law.

The 10-or-less rule also seems convoluted. Are employers allowed to pay their employees below minimum wage if there are 10 or less full-time workers at the venue because the company is then, in theory, unable to make as great a profit as a larger venue? On the flip side of this exception, if there are fewer workers, couldn’t an employer pay them more money rather than less money?

What is truly vile about these exceptions to the Pennsylvania state minimum wage law is the fact that high school and college students — who typically work minimum wage jobs — can legally be paid only 85 percent of the minimum wage. That is, students can legally be paid about $6.08, which is $1.07 less than minimum wage. Why is it legitimate for hard-working students, who are often taking on a job in addition to a full-time education, to be cheated out of an entire one-seventh of their deserved hourly rates?

Allowing employers to pay college and high school students 85 percent of the set minimum wage essentially just allows the minimum wage to be lowered overall. While Pennsylvania should be commended for raising minimum wage to $7.15 this past July, enforcing this exception to that law seems to be taking a giant step backwards.

This exception assumes that high school and college students are not financially independent and are not supporting themselves. While being financially independent is probably less likely for high school than college students, many college students take out loans in their names to pay tuition, rent and living expenses, or split other college costs with their parents. When a sophomore political science major is busy balancing a full course load, weekly activist meetings, and daily track practices, all the while putting himself through school, what happens when he can only find work at a sandwich shop, and gets paid below minimum wage?

The absurdity of this rule makes it necessary to point out several of its obvious counterarguments. First, high school and college students, particularly the latter, tend to be smarter and more efficient at tasks associated with retail or eatery work than are most other workers. I realize that an obvious counterargument to this assertion is that students should be working somewhere where their skills may be better utilized, such as secretarial work. The problem with this idea is that most students do not have options outside of more labor-intensive work, such as retail shops or eateries, due to other (often education-related) time constraints. Students can’t work nine-to-five jobs because of classes and other educational commitments.

After acknowledging these counterarguments, it seems like the law allowing students to be paid below minimum wage is nothing more than a way for the state to please employers by allowing them to cut costs. As much as it is important for there to be a healthy relationship between the state and its businesses, what about maintaining a healthy relationship between the state and employees?

Where does employee satisfaction factor in to the minimum wage law? If employees are told that they are not worth even minimum wage, why should they stay faithful to the company? One worker at Camille’s Sidewalk Café franchise, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and South Craig Street, echoed the rumors that the newly opened venue has a high turnover rate of employees due to low wages. “I’ve only been working here three days and I’ve heard a lot of stories already,” said a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, explaining that several workers had quit after being paid less than $7 an hour. While this is allowed according to the minimum wage law exceptions, is it ethical? A representative from the Starbucks Customer Relations regional office, when asked if any of the store’s branches pay below minimum wage, responded with a firm “Absolutely not,” explaining that the company always pays at or above minimum wage as part of their competitive compensation package. While I know that this situation is not wholly comparable to a franchise store like Camille’s, the moral is: Starbucks knows that low-paid employees will go elsewhere, and will give the company a bad reputation — which Camille’s is rapidly acquiring.

So the moral of the story is just that: maintaining morals. Despite it being legal to pay below minimum wage, doing so is indecent, particularly to college students. Instead, students should be paid at or above minimum wage to increase productivity and employee morale, and, most importantly, to be able to support themselves and their lifestyles.