Are $15 Minimum Wage Laws Hurting U.S. Army Recruitment?

UPDATED January 7, 2019 4:10 p.m. with comment from Lisa M. Ferguson, Media Relations Chief for U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

The United States Army fell 6,500 soldiers short of its 2018 recruitment goals and a variety of factors could lead to a similar deficit in 2019.

A new article in The New York Times outlines the Army's new strategy of targeting large urban areas like Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, searching for recruits in areas outside the Virginia-to-Texas region, where young people enlist at two or three times the recruitment rate found in other areas of the country.

But the numbers in Seattle suggest an uphill climb. The New York Times visited the city's recruiting station, which aimed to pick up just five recruits in a month, but had so far only signed two. "What do we need to make mission?" Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Vargas asked.

"A miracle," one of his recruiters, who can earn a Friday off for signing a new soldier, responded.

"There are multiple challenges with recruiting in these areas, but our primary obstacle is awareness. Less than one percent of the population currently serves in the military, which has caused a disconnect between the military and society," Lisa M. Ferguson, Media Relations Chief for U.S. Army Recruiting Command told Newsweek.

The shortage in Seattle can be attributed to a number of factors, including the city's rapidly-expanding tech sector and tradition of anti-war protest. But there's another major change that may also play a role: a high minimum wage.

Seattle and San Francisco were among the first major cities to adopt a $15 minimum wage after "Fight for 15" activists made the number a rallying point for low-wage workers, beginning with protests in 2012. Seattle passed minimum wage reform in 2015, which has gradually ramped up wages every year. As of 2019, Seattle's largest employers, those with more than 500 employees, will pay a $16 per-hour minimum wage.

A study by the University of Washington in 2018 found that families trapped in a cycle of low-wage work saw benefits from the minimum wage laws, earning an average of $84 more per month. Most low-income workers also saw wages increase overall, even as working hours shrunk. Employee turnover also decreased citywide. The tradeoff is a higher barrier for entry, making temporary work for teenagers and other young people harder to find. A separate study by the University of California—Berkeley's Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics found that new minimum wage laws did not lead to job losses in any of the first six cities to raise their minimum wage above $10 per hour.

Since the Army is not subject to local minimum wage laws, Seattle pay now outstrips what locals could earn by signing up for the Army. $15 per hour is not only more than the base pay for privates, but corporals and specialists as well.

"There's a larger context to the impact of pay on recruitment. While base pay for the lower enlisted ranks is below the $15 an hour minimum wage threshold, it is not the only compensation soldiers receive," Ferguson told Newsweek. "Healthcare is available to soldiers and their families for no or very low cost. Soldiers are issued uniforms when they enlist and continue to receive a clothing allowance to purchase new uniforms. Soldiers also receive meals at dining hall facilities, if they live in barracks on post, or receive Basic Allowance for Subsistence, which supplements their grocery bill, if they don't live in barracks."

Expanded minimum wage laws may soon affect other recruiting regions as well. New laws in several states are expected to bring higher wages to more than 5 million workers, but there remains approximately 40 percent of the American workforce earning under $15 per hour. A higher minimum wage would disproportionately benefit black Americans, which also make up a larger share of Army recruitment compared to overall demographic representation.

"Sergeant Hard Times," as newspapers described poor economic conditions in the 1970s, is no longer the Army's best recruiter. With unemployment low and more economic opportunities available in urban areas, the Army has instead rebranded as a lifestyle opportunity, pivoting from its previous focus on job training. Recruiters will soon be required to post to Instagram.

"You want to do a gap year," Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of Army Recruiting Command, told The New York Times. "Come do your gap year in the Army."

New recruits commit to eight years of service, with a minimum of two years on active duty.

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