Labor Day weekend is almost here, and I hope you have fun plans in store. I, for one, intend to observe the holiday with a few last lazy hours by the pool and a backyard barbecue. Of course, no barbecue is complete without some refreshing beverages – and this Labor Day, I’ll be raising my glass to toast this year’s major progress toward a higher minimum wage.
Perhaps you’re wondering what about the minimum wage could be worth celebrating; after all, the federal minimum wage has been stuck for more than four years at just $7.25 an hour, a level that leaves a full-time working mom with two kids thousands of dollars below the poverty line. $7.25 is more than $3.00 below where the minimum wage would be if it had kept up with inflation over the past four decades, and only about half the wage civil rights leaders called for 50 years ago during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Today’s low minimum wage especially harms women and their families, since women are nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers – and about two-thirds of tipped workers like restaurant servers, for whom the federal minimum cash wage has been frozen at just $2.13 an hour for 22 years.
But I believe we’re getting closer every day to better pay for low-wage workers, thanks to the tremendous momentum that is building from the ground up. Here’s how change is happening:
From coast to coast, people are calling (loudly!) for higher wages.
Just yesterday, thousands of fast food workers amplified their campaign for higher wages in a national day of action, with strikes in about 60 cities across the country. July 24th – the four-year anniversary of the last federal minimum wage increase – saw similar nationwide protests. And citizens are organizing in states like Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Missouri, and South Dakota to collect petition signatures that will allow them to place minimum wage increases on their state ballots next November. Given that 80 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, it should come as no surprise that when voters get to decide whether the minimum wage will go up, it goes up.
State and local policy makers are listening…
Taking a cue from the fast food worker strikes, officials in Seattle have said they will consider raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. In Berkeley, California, the labor commission is considering a proposal – already met with preliminary approval by the City Council – to raise the municipal minimum wage to $10.55 per hour, aligning it with minimum wages in nearby San Francisco ($10.55/hour) and San Jose ($10.00/hour).
At the state level, New York will soon become the twenty-first state (including D.C.) to have a minimum wage above the federal level, when an increase passed this year begins to take effect on December 31. New Jersey will be number 22 in January if voters approve a minimum wage increase on the ballot this November (and polling indicates that approval is likely). Connecticut and Rhode Island, which already had minimum wages above the federal level, also passed increases this year that will take effect beginning in 2014. Minimum wage bills are still on the table in California and Massachusetts. And I expect we’ll see more increases passed next year, especially in states like Minnesota and Hawaii where minimum wage bills were very nearly enacted in the 2013 legislative session – and where advocates on the ground are already gearing up to ensure a 2014 victory.
…and Washington is beginning to listen, too.
Asserting that “no one who works full time should have to live in poverty,” President Obama has repeatedly called for a federal minimum wage increase – a measure that new Labor Secretary Thomas Perez strongly supports. A bill pending in Congress would do just that: the Fair Minimum Wage Act would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, raise the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the minimum wage, and index both wages to keep up with inflation. To date, the Fair Minimum Wage Act has 30 cosponsors in the Senate and 142 in the House. Congress has not yet taken up the bill, but as more and more of us demand fairer wages for all workers, our leaders in Washington will have to respond.
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