Boston-based Boloco is one of a handful of fast food chains that makes a point of paying its workers above the minimum wage. How and why does it do it?
“We were talking about building a culture in which we want our team members to take care of our customers,” Mr. Pepper said. “But we asked, ‘What’s in it for them?’ Honestly, very little.”
So in 2002, when the minimum wage was $5.15 an hour, Boloco raised its minimum pay to $8. It also began subsidizing commuting costs, providing English classes to immigrant employees and contributing up to 4 percent of an employee’s pay toward a 401(k).
“If we really wanted our people to care about our culture and care about our customers, we had to show that we cared about them,” Mr. Pepper said. “If we’re talking about building a business that’s successful, but our employees can’t go home and pay their bills, to me that success is a farce.”
When the company raised its minimum pay to $8, “that was an immediate hit to the P.& L.,” Mr. Pepper acknowledged, referring to the company’s profit and loss statement.
He said his privately held company, unlike some fast-food chains, did not sense an urgency to achieve a 20 percent profit margin per restaurant.
Zeynep Ton, a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, said many companies did not pay their employees well because they had a short-term focus on maximizing profits.
During much of the minimum wage debate, proponents (including myself) have emphasized that a higher wage can actually be good for business—increasing productivity and reducing costly turnover, while stimulating the broader consumer economy. And all that is true. But if $15 ultimately decreases profit margins for the businesses required to pay it, so what?
It is important to remember that our current obsession with maximizing shareholder wealth is a late 20th century invention, first popularized by economist Milton Friedman in a 1970 article in the New York Times. It was never a part of classical economics. You won’t explicitly find it in Adam Smith. Through the early part of the 19th century, corporations were chartered to provide a public good. The modern joint stock corporation was never intended as a departure from this tradition, but merely as a means of more efficiently pooling capital, while limiting the liability of shareholders to the sum of their investment. Indeed, read the 1881 mission statement on the founding of the Wharton School, and it sounds downright utopian:
1. Object. To provide for young men special means of training and of correct instruction in the knowledge and in the arts of modern Finance and Economy, both public and private, in order that, being well informed and free from delusions upon these important subjects, they may either serve the community skillfully as well as faithfully in offices of trust, or, remaining in private life, may prudently manage their own affairs and aid in maintaining sound financial morality: in short, to establish means for imparting a liberal education in all matters concerning Finance and Economy.
That executives might choose to run their corporations with a primary goal of maximizing shareholder wealth is up to them. But contrary to Friedman’s assertion, they are under no legal or moral obligation to do so.