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Would a $15 Minimum Wage De-Incentivize Military Service?

Featured Image: Recruits march in formation at Recruit Training Command. More than 35,000 recruits train annually at the Navy’s only boot camp, GREAT LAKES, IL, US. (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Jennifer Newsome)

My first minimum-wage job was a rite of passage. In 1993, I proudly cleared tables as a busboy at CiCi’s Pizza in Dallas, Texas, for a whopping $4.25 per hour.

Four years later, after graduating high school, I joined the U.S. Army as a high-velocity projectile interceptor (also known as a light infantryman) with the 101st Airborne Division. As an E-1 servicemember, my pay was far less than the minimum wage I was paid at CiCi’s.

The author, making well below minimum wage and with far less hair than I have today. Courtesy Wes O’Donnell

However, the benefits package was far superior: free food, free housing, health coverage, a facsimile of a 401(k) savings plan and free college. And while the health coverage was questionable (since military doctors are immune from medical malpractice claims), it kept me healthy without having to spend a small fortune on health insurance premiums.

The Federal Minimum Wage Hasn’t Increased Much, Unlike the Inflation Rate

Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, a miserly increase of only $3 per hour since my time at CiCi’s in 1993. However, from 1993 to today, the inflation rate in the United States has been 81.39%.

This change in the inflation rate means that $100 in 1993 is equivalent to $181.39 in 2021. Clearly, things cost more today than they did back then. It seems only natural that the federal minimum wage be increased to reflect today’s higher cost of living. After all, many states have already increased the minimum wage far above the federal minimum.

What Would Biden’s Proposed Increase in the Minimum Wage Do to Recruitment?

But would a federal minimum wage increase to $15 per hour, much like President Biden proposed last Friday, impact recruiting for the military? Could a minimum wage increase make people reconsider joining?

Probably not. Here’s why.

In any branch of the military, an E-1 paygrade makes approximately $400 per week or $10 per hour for a 40-hour workweek before taxes. But soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are on call 24 hours a day or often work more than 40 hours per week at the very least. This situation further lowers their hourly rate to only a few bucks per hour.

If this were the end of our calculation, it would be pretty simple math. But the majority of Americans join the military for more than just a steady income.

For some, it’s an urge to serve that can’t easily be suppressed. For others, it may be a family tradition of service going back several generations.

For still others, it is an investment in themselves. Joining the service is a path to learn crucial skills that will help them achieve more in life once they leave the military.

And finally, most minimum wage workers, even those at $15 per hour, don’t get the level of benefits that the military offers. For instance, I have achieved seven years of higher education without having spent a single penny out of pocket.

In fact, when civilians thank me for my service, I always feel a little awkward. Why? I feel like the military gave me more than I ever gave it in return. So someone thanking me for all of the good fortune that the military has provided me just feels gratuitous.

That’s not to say that I am not grateful for the acknowledgement. After all, we all remember how our Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned home.

But the military is more than a job. It is difficult to compare apples to apples when there are so many other benefits involved in the service to one’s country.

An Increase Will Likely Not Affect Military Recruitment and Would Help Civilians at Risk

I support the proposed federal minimum wage increase to $15 for civilians. I don’t feel that it will impact military recruiting as most states already pay far above the current $7.25.

In addition, we’re still facing an unprecedented global pandemic that has left many workers in a position of financial fragility. The increase would be a much-needed shot in the arm for millions of Americans who are at the greatest risk.

As for CiCi’s Pizza, the position of minimum-wage busser may be going extinct after the unceremonious death of the American buffet at the hands of the coronavirus. Regardless, it is those minimum-wage positions that keeps America functioning.

Give these people a raise. The military will be just fine.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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