Sanders Feels the Bern on Hourly Wage Demands

RYAN BOURNE, CATO INSTITUTE

You really couldn’t script it.

Faced with campaign staff complaining their hourly wages are too low, 2020 presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), he of “Fight for $15” federal minimum wage fame, is currently mitigating discontent by restricting the hours his staff can work rather than raising their pay.

Salaried Sanders field staff earning $36,000 have complained of working up 60 hours per week. Once one accounts for the number of weeks they work, they say this is equivalent to just $13 per hour.

Given Sanders describes $15 per hour as a living wage (something he wants to institute through federal legislation), the union representing his workers demands a rise in salary to $46,800 to fully compensate for their current activities. Instead, at least while discussions continue, Sanders will cap the hours the staff can work, such that their current salary equates to no less than a $15 minimum wage per hour.

This serves as a useful lesson in the trade-offs associated with pay hikes. In order to raise the hourly pay of his staff, Sanders is having to restrict the hours they work. Presuming they were at least doing something productive in the additional time they currently spend campaigning, this hour cap represents a fall in the overall “product” of the workers, and so, one imagines, will weaken the campaign.

The Sanders camp obviously thought other “channels of adjustment” to hourly wage rises were even more unpalatable. His campaign could have laid off field staffers, for example, cut back on other campaign expenses such as rallies or ads, or even sought to undertake one-off investments in campaign tools to “automate” workers by shifting to electronic electioneering. It turns out too that Sanders’ campaign doesn’t believe in fairy tales one hears about how higher wages will induce much more highly productive and loyal workers, making increased pay self-financing (in this case with a better campaign attracting more donations).

Perhaps next time Bernie Sanders advocates that all employers nationwide face an elevated minimum wage, his experience will make him realize the potential costs of cuts to jobs, hours, other worker perks, or the efficiency of the firms affected.


Ryan Bourne occupies the R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. He has written on a number of economic issues, including: fiscal policy, inequality, minimum wages and rent control. Before joining Cato, Bourne was Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Head of Economic Research at the Centre for Policy Studies (both in the UK). Bourne has extensive broadcast and print media experience, and has appeared on BBC News, CNN and Sky News, whilst having articles published in (among others) the Wall Street Journal EuropeThe Times (London) and the UK Daily Telegraph. Bourne holds a BA and an MPhil in economics from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.


Used with the permission of the Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0