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It’s 2.13 – Time to Raise the Minimum Wage

ROC United's Rally on Capitol HillToday is kind of a big deal for advocates pushing for a higher minimum wage (myself included). As you may have heard, in his State of the Union address last night, President Obama called for raising the minimum wage and indexing it to keep pace with inflation – and did so eloquently, I might add:

"We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages. But today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. …

Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. …For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets. In fact, working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher. So here’s an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year: let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on."

And there’s another reason today is important in the minimum wage fight: February 13 is 2.13 – and $2.13 is the minimum hourly cash wage that millions of tipped workers have been paid since 1991. (Though President Obama didn’t mention the tipped minimum wage in his remarks, the White House affirms that it should be increased along with the regular minimum wage.) Today, tipped workers from across the country convened in Washington, DC to call for the fair wages they have been denied for far too long.

At a rally on Capitol Hill organized by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), workers shared their stories of trying to scrape by on below-poverty-level wages. Like Nikki, who worked in restaurants throughout college to pay for her education but faced eviction when full-time restaurant work left her without enough to support herself after graduation. And Candace, who reminded her colleagues, “you need to get paid like you matter.” Hearing their stories, it comes as no surprise to learn that restaurant servers experience poverty at nearly three times the rate of the workforce as a whole – and, like Nikki and Candace, about 70 percent of servers are women.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro at the ROC United rallyThese stories and statistics are grim, but the rally was charged with optimism and a sense that real change is on the horizon. Some leaders in Washington have already recognized that the $9.00 wage the President called for, while a major step forward, is not enough. At the ROC-United events today, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) talked of her own experience struggling to survive on wildly fluctuating tips, and emphasized the need to make sure the tipped minimum wage rises with both the regular minimum wage and the cost of living. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT – that’s her speaking in the photo!) rightly condemned $2.13/hour as an “unconscionable” wage and told the crowd, “our job is to raise the minimum wage and help workers care for themselves and their families.” And Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) announced today that they will introduce a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and then index it for inflation – a bill that, like the Fair Minimum Wage Act that Sen. Harkin and Rep. Miller introduced last year, presumably will also raise the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.

All of this is especially good news for women, who are not only the majority of workers in tipped jobs but also the majority of minimum wage workers across the country. But no one will benefit until a minimum wage increase is actually signed into law – so I’ll borrow a line from the President one more time to say to Congress, “let’s get this done.”