- - Monday, February 13, 2017


Sad stories. They’re the go-to strategy for the activist class looking to get public support for their various regulatory agendas. The strategy is simple: Present some person’s unique hardship and then claim that it is typical of a whole class of people who would be helped by the proposed mandate.

We saw this strategy on display again recently. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) staged protests of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants with a handful of disaffected workers to protest CEO Andy Puzder’s nomination as secretary of labor.

The sob story strategy is effective to the extent that the media is unable or unwilling to point out the obvious: Those featured in them are unique cases and often have themselves to blame for their circumstances.

Consider the story of JoAnn Wise. She’s a Hardee’s employee who the SEIU has put up to attack Mr. Puzder and agitate for a slew of new opportunity-killing regulations. Last week, Ms. Wise “wrote” a Washington Post op-ed stating after “a lifetime of work” at Hardee’s she was still in poverty, still earning $8 an hour.(I put “wrote” in quotation marks because either someone on the SEIU payroll wrote the piece or she can’t correctly spell her son’s name as he spells it on the internet).

Did Ms. Wise not notice during her decades of work at Hardee’s the hundreds of co-workers leaving their entry-level jobs for other employment that paid more for newly acquired work skills and experience? Why did she choose to stay in a starter job for so long? Was Hardee’s the problem or might self-reflection surface other reasons for her difficulties? Taking responsibility for your life decisions is often difficult but that doesn’t mean your circumstances are not your fault.

Even more bizarre, her son Terrance Wise has also been used by the unions as the face of entry-level wage employment. He, too, has been working starter jobs at restaurants for over 20 years, struggling to provide for three daughters.

Sob stories extend beyond the not-so-Wise family. Nancy Hernandez works at a Carl’s Jr. in San Jose and argues for a raise because she has five kids to support. But she had more kids after she took the starter job. Now she is using them to justify why she needs to be paid more money. Can you imagine a more dysfunctional employment system than one in which we pay people based on their housing costs, number of children or some other measure of need?

The truth is starter jobs that give the unskilled an opportunity were never meant to support a family. The cost of entry is low. You do not need a high school degree. English proficiency is often not required. These jobs provide an opportunity to quickly learn and earn. You can acquire experience and a work history that will help you get a better job. Countless business leaders — including Meg Whitman, Bill Belichick, Mark Cuban (even Barack Obama) — have used the skills learned from first jobs to help them get the next one.

Stories like the Wise and Hernandez examples have their emotional content. It should be obvious however, that these are aberrations in the entry-level employment market. These examples are often the result of people voluntarily stranding themselves on the first rung of the employment ladder. These employees are Exhibit A for poor decision-making or some nontypical and unique circumstances. But these stories are not justification for economic policies in which government sets labor rates as if they were legislating welfare benefits.

Despite economic reality, liberals who have little regard for free markets are continually conflating welfare with employment compensation. For those people who have had a run of bad luck our society provides compassionate support and safety nets. There are housing, food, child care and medical assistance allowances for those who either through no fault of their own or self-inflicted wounds are in dire need of help. That is a support decision and burden our society has agreed to bear.

No one however, has ever made a logical case that an employer should take the place of government and begin supporting those beyond their value only because they were willing to give them a job in the first place.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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