Why You Should Ask For a Raise

April 22nd 2015

Kristal High

The summer after my second year in college I got a job at Victoria’s Secret. I still remember my interview like it was yesterday. I nailed it, and when it came time to tell them my pay requirements, I barely batted an eye when I said I wouldn’t work for anything less than $9.00 an hour. At the time, the minimum wage was about $5.15.  

Because it was so easy for me to get the pay I requested, I naively assumed that everyone was making what I made or more. That was until one lunch break when I was chatting with some of the other employees, most of whom were on the job longer and worked more hours than I did each day. Not only was I apparently the highest paid, but I was also the only one who came in with a pay requirement, unwilling to just accept what my future employer was trying to offer.

To me, my time at Vicky Seeks, as I called it, was just a summer job to get extra cash – clock in, talk to people, rearrange lingerie, ring up purchases, enjoy my store discounts, and then back to my tony collegiate lifestyle I’d go. This was not a career. It wasn’t even a stepping-stone. It was just something to do, not anything I had to do. For others, though, working this job, standing on their feet for 8, 10, sometimes 12 hours a day (I still despise semi-annual sales) was a way of life. It was the only means for the other women on the job to support themselves and their families, and they didn’t even feel like they had the power to negotiate or insist upon fair pay commensurate with their work and worth to the company.

The chasm between me and the other women had nothing to do with our effort or our integrity; it had everything to do with our circumstances and what we felt were our bargaining positions and relative value to a major retail chain. Realizing that difference and the impact it had on the pay gap between us was both humbling and life changing.

Back in 1999, Chris Rock had this great line during a Weekend Update segment with Norm McDonald on Saturday Night Live where he said, “I used to work at McDonald’s making minimum wage. You know what that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boss was trying to say? ‘Hey, if I could pay you less, I would, but it’s against the law.’” And he’s right. With the exception of startups and mom & pop outfits that have more stringent resource constraints, large, wealthy companies don’t necessarily pay the minimum wage because they have to. Many do it because they can.

Clearly, wages impact a company’s bottom line as well as that company’s ability to pay dividends to shareholders, invest in infrastructure, create new jobs, or [insert other capital intensive activities here]. That said, in a country where CEOs make anywhere between five times and 300 times what the average worker makes, depending on your source, the argument can be made that there’s more than enough money to go around to raise the minimum wage to a living wage.

Too often, short shrift is paid to how hard some people work for the money they earn each day. We tout these illusions of being “self-made” in an American “meritocracy” and attempt to convince ourselves that the money we’re paid fully reflects the money we actually deserve.

Do teachers, the people responsible for shaping the minds of our children – the future leaders and workers of this country – deserve to be paid $53,590 a year while NBA players make, on average, $5.15 million a year to entertain us with their athletic prowess on the court? Don’t get me wrong, the value that they bring is different and profound, but in order of priority, is it right to value teachers’ work at 1% of what basketball players make?

We have a ways to go in this country before we achieve real pay equity. Until then, we need a system that reflects more realistic assessments of value (you can have all the ideas you want, but they won’t happen unless you have people willing and able to work hard to make them happen) and that bears in mind that a minimum wage is rarely, if ever, livable, and it is rarely, if ever, in keeping with making people feel truly valued.

If we want to promote the “dignity of work” as an ideal, we should also be willing to promote adequate compensation as a means of ensuring that people don’t labor tirelessly feeling like their bosses would pay them less if they could.