WASHINGTON – Pam Garrison worked much of her life in low-paying retail jobs, earning wages so paltry that they barely covered even the most basic necessities such as food and shelter.
“We don’t live – we survive,” Garrison, a retiree from Fayette County, West Virginia, said of minimum-wage workers. “And that’s not good enough in America.”
Garrison and other proponents of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour are pressuring President Joe Biden and Congress to boost the hourly pay scale as part of a $1.9 trillion package aimed at providing relief to Americans recovering from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Advocacy groups consider the relief package their best – and possibly only – chance to raise the minimum wage to $15, which a government report concluded could lift nearly 1 million Americans out of poverty.
Prospects for a $15 minimum wage appear bleak.
Biden has conceded the increase is likely to be stripped from his COVID-19 relief package because of opposition among Republicans and at least two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
If the minimum wage doesn’t survive that legislation, Biden said, he’s open to pursuing the pay increase through a separate piece of legislation. That would be an even bigger hurdle because 60 votes would be needed in the Senate to overcome a filibuster – a nearly impossible threshold to cross given the Senate’s 50-50 partisan split.
“It doesn’t look like there’s a path to get to $15 an hour,” acknowledged Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington.
Activists such as Garrison aren’t about to give up. They are writing, texting and calling senators, demanding that the wage increase remain in the relief bill.
“We are desperate,” said Garrison, 61, an activist with the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. “We are not taking no. We are demanding $15.”
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The $15 minimum wage is by far the most contentious part of Biden’s COVID-19 relief package, underscoring the political difficulty of boosting the basic pay for millions of workers. Opponents argue raising the minimum wage would hurt the low-wage workers it’s intended to help because businesses would cut jobs to compensate for the higher labor costs.
A Congressional Budget Office report released this month estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would boost the pay for as many as 27 million Americans but could result in the loss of as many as 1.4 million jobs.
Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage – $7.25 an hour – since 2007, though polls show Americans overwhelmingly favor an increase. Then-President Barack Obama called on Congress to boost the minimum wage in 2014, but the effort went nowhere. The House voted in 2019 to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, only to see the Senate kill the proposal.
Biden promised repeatedly to raise the minimum wage to $15 during last year’s presidential campaign and included the increase in the American Recovery Act, his first major piece of legislation as president. The White House said he remains committed to passing the pay increase even it is removed from the COVID-19 bill.
“President Biden has been consistent in private and public about his commitment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is why he included it in his first major piece of legislation,” White House spokesperson Mike Gwin said. “That commitment will remain unshaken.”
Advocacy groups for low-income Americans insist the COVID-19 relief bill is the appropriate vehicle to raise the minimum wage.
Many minimum-wage earners are people of color who are essential workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
“They’ve been feeding us, caring for us, serving us, delivering things for us,” Henry said. “And they’ve been risking their lives without proper personal protective equipment and without the wages in their pockets that allow them to stay safely home if they get infected.”
Workers who earn less than a living wage have been among the first to put their lives on the line during the pandemic, said the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“They’ve been the first to have to go to work, the first to get sick, the first to die,” Barber said. “There’s no such thing as COVID relief that does not address the economic disparity that COVID has exposed.”
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Raising the minimum wage through the COVID-19 bill “would give us the best shot by far to actually get it done,” Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin said.
Senate Democrats plan to push the legislation through a procedure called budget reconciliation that will allow them to pass the bill with a simple majority, or 51 votes. Under Senate rules, legislation that falls under the budgetary provision can’t include “extraneous matter,” raising doubts about whether the minimum wage increase will survive. The final decision will rest with the Senate parliamentarian, who will rule whether the wage proposal can stay in the package.
If the minimum wage is stripped from the COVID-19 package and pursued as a separate piece of legislation, Republicans would almost certainly filibuster the bill, which would mean Democrats would need at least 60 votes to pass it.
“Getting to 60 votes in the Senate is a steep climb for anything, let alone a policy that Republicans and their rich donors have blocked for more than a decade,” Schwerin said.
Marshall said it’s time for supporters of a $15 minimum wage to start looking for Plan B.
“There are many roads to a living wage, and we have to look at minimum wage increases as one road,” he said. “But it doesn’t end the discussion. It’s strange how so many on the left cling to this one policy.”
One option would be to index a minimum wage increase to the cost of living in each state instead of mandating an across-the-board rate. That would allow wages to reflect economic reality, which can vary radically from state to state. A $15 minimum wage might not be enough in a high-cost state such as New York, where median household income is $72,000, experts said. A lower hourly rate might be sufficient in low-cost states such as West Virginia, where the annual household income is $49,000 a year.
Another way to make sure Americans earn a living wage, financial experts said, could be by making it easier to qualify for tax breaks, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. The tax credit is designed to reward work and boost the incomes of Americans working in low- and moderate-paying jobs. The amount of the credit depends on a recipient’s income, marital status and number of children.
Expanding eligibility for the tax credit isn’t a replacement for raising the minimum wage, Marshall said, but a combination of the two “allows you to give people raises and reduce poverty without throwing people out of work.”
Supporters of a $15 minimum wage aren’t backing down.
“There’s no middle ground on this,” Barber said. “It’s about people’s lives. It’s about what is right.”
People who have never lived in poverty have no idea what it does to you – mentally, physically and emotionally, Garrison said.
“By the time you’re 55 years old, you’re just frazzled,” she said. “And then you can’t even get Social Security until you’re 62 to 65. So in between, you struggle. You suffer. You do without or work side jobs, cleaning people’s houses, just trying to get food on the table.”
A $15 minimum wage “is not too much,” she said.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter at @mcollinsNEWS.
Source: USA Today – Breaking News