They looked me directly in the eyes. They were forthright, bold and persuasive.
Until recently, Tracey Mulvehill has been holding down two jobs to make ends meet, one of which was for minimum wage at a casino. “It feels like I’ve been living against the current, trying to stay above water,” she said.
Jessica Nunez currently works two minimum wage jobs at a warehouse packing chocolate and as a housekeeper. She has three children. She told me that every day she is forced to choose between feeding them, giving them school supplies or providing warm clothing.
Cheryl Henderson is a baggage handler at the airport and a high school graduate. She has worked for the minimum wage for two years and lives with her parents and son. She says an increase to her current wage “would be beneficial and will allow me and my son to finally have a place of our own.”
Shedaya Ivy works at McDonald’s at minimum wage and is attending community college. She lives at home with her grandmother and aunt. For her, a higher minimum wage would mean she “can make sure her grandmother and aunt are ok” and ensure they “have food in the house.” “As long as my family is ok,” she says “I’m ok.”
These are just some of the workers with whom I sat down in Philadelphia today to talk about the struggles that workers and families living on today’s federal minimum wage go through to make ends meet. For them, being rewarded an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work will help them climb into the middle class. These are our hardworking neighbors and loved ones, exhibiting the tireless spirit that built the American Dream. They deserve a decent living that rewards them for their contributions and allows them to raise their families out of poverty.
President Obama is proposing an increase in the federal minimum wage to $9 by 2015 and indexing the minimum wage to inflation thereafter. This increase would restore the real (adjusted for cost-of-living) value of the minimum wage to what it was in 1981, and indexing the minimum wage to inflation would ensure that working families can keep up with expenses in the future. There are about 15 million workers in the United States who would see a direct boost to their earnings if this proposal is enacted. But it’s not only the workers currently earning the minimum wage who would benefit. The proposal makes excellent economic sense, with the most pronounced benefits coming from increased worker productivity and purchasing power.
Take the recent letter to our national leaders from a group of highly esteemed economists from the Economic Policy Institute. It states that raising the federal minimum wage would “serve to stimulate the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings potentially raising demand and job growth.” The report also highlights what it calls “spillover effects” – increases in earnings to higher-wage workers as a result of companies restructuring their pay scales.
Because of the employment report that is delivered to my office each month, I am still highly attuned to our ongoing struggle to get people back to work, but the argument that an increase in wages would reverse our progress on job creation just doesn’t hold up. Several studies have measured the effects of minimum wage increases (in states that have raised their own minimum wages), and have come to the conclusion that “no detectable employment losses” result from the modest wage increases that have been enacted.
Every story I hear reinforces my conviction that the president’s proposal is the right thing to do – both for our economy and for our values of basic fairness. I intend to work with our partners and stakeholders to build support for the proposal and ensure the Labor Department stands ready to support any change to the law that may be forthcoming.
Tomorrow, I’ll be in Cleveland to meet more workers whose voices deserve to be heard, as well as employers and stakeholders who understand that fair wages lead to a more stable workforce, long-term profitability and broad-based prosperity across our economy. I’ll be updating you from that event as this very important conversation moves forward in the weeks and months ahead.
President Obama, Tracey, Jessica, Cheryl, Shedaya and I are convinced we can do more to lift up our communities and help Americans achieve their dreams. Raising the minimum wage is a great place to start.
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.