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Veterans drawn into wage battle

As military veterans make the transition into civilian life, they typically face higher unemployment rates and lower-paying job offers than the average job seeker. And that has turned them into the latest battleground in the fight over whether to raise the minimum wage.

Nationwide, an estimated 1 million veterans earn around or below the federal minimum wage of $9 per hour, based on data from the Census Bureau.

Using the same set of data, the Center on Policy Initiatives -- one of the primary advocates for raising the wage -- estimates that roughly 10,000 veterans in San Diego are currently making the minimum, which they say is far below the salary needed to survive on their own.

"These people served their country. They responded to its call. They shouldn't have to live in poverty," said Nathan Fletcher, former state assemblyman, ex-mayoral candidate and a Marine Corps veteran who recently launched the Three Wise Men Foundation to highlight awareness of veterans' issues.

But opponents of the minimum wage hike fear the proposal might hurt rather than helping veterans, by leading small businesses to scale back their hiring plans or even lay off workers.

"It's still way too hard to find jobs for veterans, so this isn't the time to be raising a wage that could end up taking away jobs," said Patrick Batten, a Marine veteran who opposes the wage hike.

So far, however, there has been no evidence that the cities, counties and states that have raised the minimum wage has resulted in any pattern of job losses.

At the most recent count in July, the jobless rate for veterans averaged 8.1 percent, compared to 6.1 percent for the overall population.

For younger veterans, the jobless rate is far higher: 14.7 percent for veterans between ages 25 and 34, said Andy Hall, director of adult programs at San Diego Workforce Partnership, a private-public agency that helps train and place jobless workers.

Hall said that one problem is that the skills that veterans acquire in the military – such as how to fire rocket-propelled grenade or guide a drone missile strike – often don't transfer well to the civilian job market.

Also, some veterans have never looked for or held a civilian job before, so they may lack the want-ad answering, resume-writing,

"Things that come naturally for civilians don't always come naturally for veterans," Hall said. "That goes both for technical skills and 'soft skills,' like cooperative problem-solving and creative thinking."

Once veterans adjust, they tend to do better at finding and keeping jobs than their peers, with a jobless rate below the national average for experienced workers.

On the other hand, many of the jobs still keep them at the low end of the scale.

A study by National University System Institute for Policy Research earlier this year showed that roughly 10 percent of veterans in San Diego County have low-paying jobs beneath $11.50 an hour -- the level that the City Council would like to set the minimum in 2017. Security guard services, which employ a large number of veterans, pay a median of $11.62 per hour.

Proponents of raising the wage say it will give veterans more spending money in their pockets, which in turn would help stimulate economic growth.

“The current minimum wage in San Diego is not enough to pay the rent and buy groceries in San Diego. And then if you fall ill without sick days you fall behind in your rent,” said ex-Marine Joseph Rider, who said he has had to rely on minimum wage jobs -- such as standing on street corners to twirl placards advertising local businesses -- after his former security job came to an end.

"When people lose a good job, they sometimes have to take any job that comes along, just to stay off the street," he said, adding that his age (55) and his damaged knees -- injured in a mishap with an armored vehicle -- make it harder to find steady work.

The minimum wage ordinance -- currently under attack from a petitioning drive spearheaded by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce -- guarantees up to five days of paid sick leave as well as a gradual increase of the minimum wage to $11.50 by 2017.

Wage hike opponent Batten said he too has found it challenging to find good work. After a six-month job search with the help of half a dozen local placement services, he found a job as an account manager for a construction materials supplier in the city of Commerce, meaning that he sometimes has to commute more than 200 miles a day.

Batten said that after holding down a first job, veterans can usually find something better. But he worries that raising the minimum wage might make it harder to find the first job.

"I don't think anybody wants to see veterans remain on the minimum wage forever," he said. "For my fellow veterans, I hope that in the future they won't all be security guards, but at least that's something they can do for now."

Hall declined to comment on how a minimum wage hike might impact the job market.

But he said that the key to providing good employment in the future is to build a better career path between low-paying jobs and higher paying positions.

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