Saturday, January 17, 2009

Walmart Wages Not Virtuous?

Commentators often imply that low wage employers are less virtuous than high wage employers. They make it seem like it is just a question of the employers generosity what wage rates they pay. In reality, low wage and high wage employers are seeking and employee different people. It is not obvious that a low wage model is less virtuous than a high wage model.

For example, McDonald's typically pays minimum wage to entry level employees. In California, In-N-Out pays significantly more than minimum wage to entry level employees. At In-N-Out, it is easy to see that the employees are more enthusiastic, work faster, and get your order right more often than McDonald's employees. So, why is it more virtuous hiring better employees who no doubt have other options? Isn't there virtue in hiring the first time employee, the employee who is a little slow, the employee from a disadvantage background who needs more training in customer service?

Walmart is the employer usually castigated for low wages. They hire more disabled, more people fresh off welfare, more people who just aren't productive enough to earn better wages than anybody else. It seems to me it is a great service to society to give these less productive people an opportunity to work. Costco pays better wages and has better benefits. Costco employees are efficient, friendly, and probably have a relatively long tenure at Costco. Costco employees have better alternative opportunities. Why is it so virtuous hiring better people at a better wage?

Paying higher wages is not virtuous, nor is it generous. It is a business strategy that can really pay off in better service, higher productivity, and lower training costs because employees stay longer.

Paying low wages is not stingy and it is not bad for the country or the economy. It is simply hiring the people who aren't yet productive enough to earn higher wages elsewhere. It involves investing in training and business processes that make those employees productive. It also means more turnover because once you have given employees an opportunity to learn to be productive and provide good service (or just show they can be productive and provide good service), employees can often earn better wages elsewhere. A cost to the low wage employer, but a very nice service to the economy.