• Jessica Ramos

Teen Vogue: ‘Low-Skill’ Workers Don’t Exist, But Low-Wage Workers Do

On day four of his tenure as mayor of New York City, Eric Adams made a gaffe that drew the ire of many who know the lie of “low-skill” labor. Advocating for the return of workers to their midtown offices, he said, “My low-skill workers, my cooks, my dishwashers, my messengers, my shoe-shine people, those who work at Dunkin’ Donuts — they don’t have the academic skills to sit in a corner office.” His poor choice of words drew backlash from across the internet (myself included). He rephrased his poor choice of words soon after, and Twitter moved on.

But the harm perpetuated by the myth of low-skill labor lingers. It’s an old lie, one that has implications much bigger than what Mayor Adams was alluding to. Historically, enforcing the idea that a worker is low-skilled has proved to be an excellent way to justify suppressing their wages.

I could talk about how this age-old strategy to suppress wages is a reflection of our culture’s low opinion of domestic labor and women’s invisible labor, or dive into the many classist and racist assumptions that underlie how we assign value to work. But at this juncture, I’d rather just leave the myth behind. There are no low-skill workers, only low-wage workers. Whether you work as a dishwasher or in a corner office, you deserve a wage that allows you to live with dignity.

With the exception of a few notable sectors, the minimum wage in New York City is $15 an hour. A statewide path to $15 was passed by the New York State Legislature in the 2016-17 state budget and created a phase-in process that allowed each region to get to $15 incrementally.

The movement known as the Fight for $15 started four years earlier, when 200 fast food workers in New York City walked off the job, demanding a living wage; it has since brought together a strong coalition of unions and expanded across the country, even leading a successful push for a ballot measure that, in 2020, established a $15 minimum wage in solidly red Florida. The Fight for $15 exemplifies a belief that I hold dear from my time in the labor movement, and as the chair of the New York State Senate’s Labor Committee: So-called low-skill workers can win big when they are organized.

The problem is that workers, even organized workers, are fighting on many fronts, and the real cost of living that inspired the demand for the $15 minimum wage has drastically increased since the Fight for $15 kicked off. Until 1968, wages generally climbed with both inflation and productivity, allowing working families to maintain the spending power needed to maintain economic security. In January 2020, the Center for Economic and Policy Research asserted that a minimum wage that climbed steadily with productivity would be about $24 an hour. After a decade of fighting for $15 an hour, productivity and inflation have outpaced us again. To give workers a boost, we need to develop a structural fix to relieve us from the grueling battle that goes into incremental, state-by-state wage increases, and free up organizing capacity for our other fights.