Labor Department Hits the Road To Push Minimum Wage Hike

Bruce Vail

Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris listens May 14 as fast food worker Laura Bailey describes the financial stresses of raising a daughter while earning $7.80 an hour. Between them is Jonathan Martin, another Baltimore worker who would benefit from a minimum wage increase. (U.S. Department of Labor)

BALTIMORE — With one minimum wage hike proposal after another languishing in Congress, some advocates may have given up hope of an increase anytime soon. But Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris is not discouraged.

Harris, who has been the interim head of the Department of Labor since Hilda Solis’s resignation in January, has taken the agency on the road in favor of a wage raise. He traveled to Baltimore this week to meet with low-wage workers and promote President Barack Obama’s State of the Union proposal to lift the federal minimum from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour. The president’s plan would also automatically link future increases to inflation, as a way of preventing the gradual erosion of purchasing power that has plagued low-wage workers since the 1980s, Harris says.

The labor department’s promotional tour has hit some 23 cities since the February 12 State of the Union address, with more to come. The effort has been largely overshadowed, however, by the March 18 nomination of Thomas Perez as the new secretary of labor and a confirmation fight that is still underway in the U.S. Senate. Nevertheless, Harris says he is pressing forward because there is a lot of hunger out there” to see the wage increased.

The reasons for that hunger were all too clear this week at Our Daily Bread, a Catholic Charities of Baltimore center that offers free meals to the needy and employment services to the city’s poor. Some 35 low-income workers met there with Harris to tell their stories of scratching out a living on paltry wages and insufficient public services. They are among an estimated 15 million workers in 49 states who would see an immediate raise under the Obama proposal. (Though 19 states have minimum wages higher than the federal rate, only Washington’s is above $9.00.)

For example, 23-year-old Maurice Brown relies on his job at a 7‑Eleven convenience store to support both himself and his 2‑year-old daughter. But the $8.00 an hour he’s paid is not enough, he says, and he is currently behind on his rent. Brown adds it is near impossible for a convicted felon like himself to get a better job, so the minimum wage law is especially important. Another $1.00 an hour, he says, would make a difference in keeping up with his monthly bills.

Likewise, Erin Breen, a food server, says her job sometimes brings in as little as $100 a week. That’s because her wage at the Sunshine Grille is actually $3.63 an hour, a so-called tipped wage” that assumes she will receive tips from customers that will bring her income up to minimum wage levels. The tips flow freely at times, she says, but not consistently. In the past she has relied on food stamps to help feed her 2‑year-old son, she says, but she no longer qualifies because she has a full-time job.

Employers who offer a server wage are supposed to ensure that workers receive enough tip income so that wait staff are assured the equivalent of the minimum wage, Harris explains, but that doesn’t always happen in practice. The labor department’s enforcement division is constantly on the lookout to deter or punish employers who skirt the server rules, he says.

Obama’s proposal would raise the federal tipped minimum wage, currently $2.13 an hour, by 85 cents each year until it reaches 70 percent of the regular minimum.

Harris notes that in personally conducting about a dozen similar meetings with low-wage workers in recent weeks that the names of very prominent, very successful corporations keep popping up. That happened again this week when Baltimore resident Laura Bailey discussed her job at a Wendy’s, a fast food restaurant, where she earns $7.80 an hour. A single mother like Breen, Bailey says the hardships of low pay often fall hardest on her 15-year-old daughter. There is no money for most of the simple pleasures that mean a lot to a teenage girl, her mother says.

These stories illustrate that some of the widely used arguments against raising the minimum wage are no more than contemporary myths, Harris says. One of the most popular arguments is that most minimum wage workers are teenagers engaged in casual work — that they work only to earn money for spending on luxury spending at the local mall. This is demonstrably untrue, he says, with less than 20 percent of minimum wage workers still in their teen years. Further, more than 25 percent of all minimum wage workers are helping to support their own children, according to Harris.

Harris says his immediate goal is to build public support for Obama’s proposal, an implicit admission that it faces some very serious obstacles in the political arena. With a majority of members in the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans could easily kill the effort. Harris insists he is not engaged in vote counting, but the labor department road show seems to be a recognition that to gain any momentum, the proposal will need a grassroots push.

The surveys show that 3 out of 4 people are in favor of raising the minimum wage, so we have a solid base,” he says. But this public support – like the strong public support for recently failed gun safety legislationhas not yet translated into the votes necessary for legislative success.

Eager to avoid enmeshing himself in partisan congressional battles, Harris mildly offers up the suggestion that since Republican President George W. Bush signed the most recent increase into law in 2008, there is no need to consider Republican opposition monolithic. From a broader historical perspective, he says, the federal minimum wage marks its 75th anniversary this year, so it has a long history of bipartisan support that deserves to be continued.

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Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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