MURDO, S.D. — Sen. John Thune drew nationwide ridicule this week for his story about making $6 an hour flipping burgers in Murdo, S.D., as a youngster. But a woman who runs a seasonal drive-in in the town now and says she “might’ve even knew Sen. Thune” as a kid, agreed with him.
“If we had to go up to $15 an hour, we wouldn’t probably be able to continue doing business as we have,” said Mary Cazan, who runs and owns Murdo Drive-In with her husband. They serve local, grass-fed beef patties and rhubarb milkshakes, with a staff fluctuating during busy summer months between six and 15 people with adults, returning college students, and a few teenagers. And she knows the town well, growing up waiting tables at the truck stop.
“Little shops like ours are barely scraping by,” Cazan told Forum News Service Friday, Feb. 26. “There’s not a huge profit margin.”
The Senate parliamentarian ruled Thursday evening that Democrats’ push to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 could not be slipped into the COVID-19 stimulus bill currently moving through Congress. Some Democrats are calling for a standalone vote on the issue they say is needed to keep up with the nation’s working families amid historic wealth inequality.
Thune, South Dakota’s senior senator, told reporters in Washington, D.C., this week he opposes a one-size-fits-all wage increase, invoking his youth in Murdo, a small town on the vast western prairie between the Missouri River and the Black Hills that courts tourists heading west.
“I started busing tables at a dollar an hour,” Thune said Wednesday, Feb. 24, recounting his cooking gig at the Star Family Restaurant in Murdo. “Then I finally made it to cook — which was big time, that was six bucks an hour.”
Economists weighed in, saying that, accounting for inflation, someone making $6 an hour in the 1970s would’ve been making more than $20 an hour in 2021 — far more than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25.
“On the merits, Mr. Thune ought to endorse a higher minimum wage,” said Binyamin Appelbaum, a columnist with The New York Times.
But restaurateurs in South Dakota think Thune — inflation aside — may have a good point.
Mike Haskett, who runs M.B. Haskett Delicatessen in Sioux Falls, says he abhors trickle-down economics which he says created a widening inequality gap felt especially in rural areas since the 1980s and Reagan’s presidency.
But a $15 minimum wage gives him pause.
“The most any cook has made at my restaurant this year is about $17 an hour,” Haskett said Friday. “If every 16-year-old dishwasher/burger flipper goes up to $15 an hour that really (screws over) my buddy whose got a mortgage and spent his whole career who's only making $2 more than minimum wage.”
“I don’t even make minimum wage,” said Haskett, noting that over the last year, due to the pandemic, he’s cut his staff from nearly 20 to fewer than seven.
Asked how he’d stay open with a $15 minimum wage, he said, “I’m not an economist. But I’m going to have to dramatically raise my prices.”
The federal minimum wage has not been increased by Congress since 2009. According to the pro-wage increase Economic Policy Institute, a national $15 wage would help a single, adult American earner without kids achieve a “modest, but adequate standard of living” in “all areas across the United States.”
A spokesperson for the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulations says they do not track the number of minimum wage earners in the state. The state requires nontipped employees be paid $9.45 an hour.
Cazan says she pays higher than minimum wage requires and pays her more experienced workers more. She’s not sure why wages seem to have stagnated in town, but notices one change is that kids start working at older ages. She also said teenagers are more often “on their phones or hiding in the bathrooms” and that people want their food faster.
Over 30 years ago, Cazan said, that acquaintance of hers, that lanky kid who became a U.S. senator, maybe manned the kitchen on his own.
“You could hire one person whereas probably now you need to hire three or four,” she said.