Like most Americans, I’ve worked minimum-wage jobs. As an adolescent and a young adult, I worked on a farm, in a grocery store, and for a carpenter, and co-workers weren’t all teens. A grouchy guy in his 40s who smoked unfiltered Camels and swung a hammer like it was a Stradivarius pounded nails alongside me; a single mom was head cashier, knew the supermarket better than the boss, and mothered bag boys as well as ran the register.
At each workplace, the employer would’ve paid less if they could have.
In craps, seven is the most desirable roll of the dice and in many cultures, seven is a lucky number. But the following seven facts about the minimum wage show that Congress is playing craps with people’s lives.
1. $15,080 is the annual income for a full-time employee working a year at the federal minimum wage. The U.S. poverty level for two adults with one child is $19,530.
2. $2.13 is the federal minimum wage for “tipped employees” such as waiters, according to the National Employment Law Project. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the industry classified as “Leisure and Hospitality” has the highest proportion of workers earning the minimum wage or less – 19 percent – mostly in restaurants and other food services.
3. 3 is the number of times Congress increased the minimum wage in the past 30 years.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) this summer co-sponsored a bill to raise the minimum wage to $9.80 next year, followed by annual increases. Calling the measure a “modest, common-sense proposal” that would help 28 million U.S. workers, he said that today’s minimum wage has 30 percent less buying power than it did in 1968.
“That’s 30 percent less money in the pockets of people who are working just as hard, doing some of the most difficult and important jobs in our country,” Harkin said. “We must restore the minimum wage to its historic value, to rebuild our economy and help minimum wage workers and their families succeed.”
4. $10.55 is how much the federal minimum wage would be if it had just kept up with inflation over the past 40 years. (Instead, it’s $7.25.) Adding perspective, gasoline was $2.51/gallon in 2009 (the last time the federal rate went up) and now it’s $3.52, points out the ABQ Minimum Wage Campaign in New Mexico. The average cost of a gallon of milk cost $2.69 in 2009; now it’s $3.50.
5. 19 is the number of states (including the District of Columbia) that have raised their minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25. Illinois’ is now $8.25.
6. 10 is the number of states that annually increase their state minimum to keep up with the rising cost of living. They’re Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, according to the federal Labor Department, with minimum wages now ranging from $7.35 in Missouri to $9.19 in Washington.
7. 67 is the percentage of Americans who support gradually raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to at least $10 an hour, according to a 2010 poll.
Pamela Prah of the Pew Charitable Trusts writes, “Minimum wage hikes at the state level have been popular among voters. Since 1998, proposed increases have been on statewide ballots 10 times in nine states, and all of them were successful.”
The first federal minimum wage was part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed in 1938. The law set a 25-cent-per-hour wage floor and a 44-hour work-week ceiling for most workers. Except for Social Security, Roosevelt said, the law was “the most far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted.”
But many conservatives say any minimum wage hike would discourage businesses from hiring employees and would especially hurt young workers seeking entry-level jobs.
However, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Arindrajit Dube, who examined minimum wage effects across states, found little impact on employment.
Further, some employers, from small businesses to big corporations, say that’s not true.
Costco CEO Craig Jelinek, who’s active with other employers in the Business for a Fair Minimum Wage advocacy group, says, “We know that paying employees good wages makes good sense for business. We pay a starting hourly wage of $11.50, and we are still able to keep our overhead costs low. Instead of minimizing wages, we know it’s a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment and loyalty. We support efforts to increase the federal minimum wage.”
When will U.S. workers get a good roll of the dice?
Is it time to make our own luck by lobbying Congress?
Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.