Oratorical contest winners support, dispute minimum wage increase

From left, orators Samantha O’Harra, Emily Marsh, Katalina Peterson, Esmeralda Rodriguez, Pac Thor and Daniel Reyes.

Exercise caution when considering an increase in minimum wage, suggested Beaumont High School junior Samantha O’Harra, who was one of three students from her school and three from Banning High School to compete in the San Gorgonio Pass Round Table’s annual oratorical contest Monday.

The catered event was hosted at The Lakes Assisted Living in Banning.

The topic was “How would raising the federal minimum wage affect our economy?”

O’Harra, who took second place and will have $1,000 credited to the college of her choice from Round Table’s Excalibur Foundation, felt that an increase in a nationwide minimum wage would disproportionately affect regions that had higher population concentrations (and likely more job sources) than rural areas.

She highlighted the demise of fashion industry jobs after the likes of American Apparel could no longer afford to do business in America after being forced to raise wages, and Saint John Knits and United Denim laid off workers and transferred operations to other countries in order to remain profitable.

The loss of those jobs due to a forced increase in minimum wage did not help those thousands of individuals who now have no jobs, she pointed out.

“The guiding logic behind these decisions is a matter of business pragmatism,” she said. “Business will move to a cheaper labor force because it allows for an increase in profit … an increase in minimum wage can create a hostile environment for any ambitious enterprise.”

Further, she said, “It is irrational to conclusively blame a policy like minimum wage for such a phenomenon: a series of legislation such as this may deter domestic businesses from developing — or remaining — within the nation,” enabling a company to benefit from affordable labor that would “stimulate foreign economies at the cost of our own.”

“A society like ours that continually seeks betterment will certainly seek ways to bring society forward as one,” O’Harra said. “Our ethics tell us no man should be left behind, just as they should, but in trying to meet our morality we should not sacrifice our sensibilities.”

Banning High School senior Daniel Reyes, who placed third and will receive a $500 credit towards college, also was reluctant to support a required raise in the minimum wage.

“When something is raised, economically another thing must lower — thus is the balance of economics,” Reyes said. “An increased price floor would lead to fewer jobs: basic economics states that when price goes up, demand goes down, such as designer products,” for instance.

Further, “We also must consider the very people we wish to help” when advocating for wage increases, namely “the marginalized groups looking for jobs: inner city teens, immigrants who know little English, and recently laid off people.”

Reyes surmised that applicants with higher education and more experience edge out less qualified job seekers for the higher paying jobs.

“Value and talent are key for businesses to thrive, and respond to the value that each employee adds,” and suggested that wages are increased voluntarily by companies to entice specific employees to remain.

By forcing companies to provide blanket wage increases, profitability is jeopardized. Reyes explained that “two $7 an hour jobs are eliminated in order to create one $15 an hour job.”

According to Reyes, “1.4 million jobs were lost” in the last decade “due to a 30 percent increase in minimum wages across the country.”

“We must first figure out who we want to help,” Reyes said. “Employers don’t want desperation. They want experience and talent. Businesses do raise wages on their own, when it’s good for them,” not when the government thinks its good for workers. And, when the government chimes in, “jobs are weeded out, and those with the least experience and a need for jobs, lose out.”

Beaumont junior Katalina Peterson, who won Round Table’s oratorical contest in 2016 and took third place in 2017, was more sympathetic to considering a raise in the federal minimum wage.

She took first place this year for another $1,500 Excalibur Foundation credit to the college of her choice.

“The minimum wage is a distinctly American invention: the idea of providing everyone willing to work hard with a decent life is key to providing opportunities to every one of our citizens,” Peterson said. “Increasing the federal minimum wage is not only the morally right thing to do if we care about society where we look out for each other — it also makes economic sense, and even helps make our country strong.”

Many homeless people in America are employed, according to Peterson — not as a result of mental illness or drug use, but simply because they cannot afford to pay rent.

She seemed to disagree with other contestants’ views that companies cannot afford to cough up a little more to make life more comfortable for employees.

“Minimum wage is intended for young or temporary workers” like high school students such as herself. “In fact, the average minimum wage worker is 35-years-old, and generally needs the money they are earning. Essentially someone needs to flip burgers or clean things, and we can choose to pay them too little to survive, but that is a moral choice, not an economic necessity,” she argued. “Some believe that forcing businesses to pay more for their workers would cause them to go out of business. Repeatedly, this has been shown to be not true. Our society has more than enough wealth; the problem is how that wealth is distributed.”

She scoffed at the millions CEOs make, while the employees that bloat their paychecks make a fraction of that amount over their lifetimes.

“Generally, the super rich put their money into offshore accounts, and that money does nothing to create jobs,” she argued. Instead, “It takes wealth out of our country, like parasites. The minimum wage has been increased 22 times, and every time, the national economy improved,” according to Peterson. “Purchasing power went up, not just for those making minimum wage, but for everyone. History has clearly shown that an increase in the federal minimum wage affects the economy positively in every way, and every time.”

Three other participants in this year’s oratorical contest included Banning High School seniors Pac Thor and Esmeralda Rodriguez, and Beaumont High School senior Emily Marsh.

Memorized speeches, which had to last between eight and 10 minutes with only a note card to use for reference, were judged by members of Toastmasters International.

Staff Writer David James Heiss is a member of the San Gorgonio Pass Round Table, and serves as the oratorical contest chairman. He may be reached at dheiss@recordgazette.net.

Staff Writer David Heiss may be reached at dheiss@recordgazette.net.

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