Earlier this week, I continued the Labor Department’s minimum wage tour in support of the president’s proposal to raise the national minimum wage. On Wednesday, I spoke with workers in Cincinnati – where I was joined by Mayor Mark Mallory – and in Indianapolis.
Like the discussions other DOL officials and I have had across the country, I listened as workers spoke of having to make unimaginably difficult choices: trying to afford preventative care for their children or risking a trip to the ER later in the month; rotating the payment of utility bills so power and heat are not turned off at the same time; or stopping at the food pantry on the way to work because there is no money for groceries. Debra, who works at a staffing agency in Ohio, stated it simply: “A raise would allow me to do the things I need to do. Not what I want to do, but what I need to do.”
Corey, a dishwasher in the hospitality industry in Cincinnati, chose to make his car payment this month. As a result, he couldn’t afford to pay his phone bill before service was discontinued. The day before I met with him, Corey missed a call about a new job opportunity because his phone service had been suspended.
But Heather’s story from the Cincinnati roundtable stuck with me. Heather earns the minimum wage at a local store working as many hours as she can to supplement other part-time work. When asked about the toughest part of making ends meet, Heather paused for a while, and then spoke poignantly about her 5-year old son, her desire to provide him with a better life, and her fear that she wouldn’t be able to do it. Heather’s story was featured by a local television station that attended the event.
That afternoon, I joined another group of low-wage workers at the John H. Boner Community Center in Indianapolis. I was once again struck by the choices these hard-working folks are forced to make every week, and the resilience each of them displays every day. Dora, a single mother who earns $8 an hour summed it up perfectly. “We don’t have to take math or accounting classes because this is what we do,” she said. “We budget every day of every week of every month.” For Kenji, it’s about always being behind. “You end up borrowing money until you get your paycheck. When you do get your check, you pay off the people you owe; then, you realize you can’t pay any of this month’s bills.”
Since President Obama’s State of the Union address, senior Labor Department officials have held 17 roundtables with low-wage workers. And we have no intention of stopping. In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to fan out to cities across the country. Our purpose is simple: Workers struggling to get by on low wages are their own strongest advocates and their stories make the most effective case for an increase in the minimum wage.
No amount of economic argument can compare to the experiences of a student that is working multiple minimum wage jobs to put herself through college. Political debate isn’t as powerful as the life story of a middle-aged worker struggling to get back on her feet. And cable news chatter is little more than background noise when considering the struggles of a single parent fighting to support his toddler by working two or three minimum wage jobs.
Eddra, one of the workers I met in Indianapolis, distilled the promise of raising the minimum wage to one word: Hope. “Hope that I can learn something through my job. Hope that I can become a better person through work. Hope that I can better the situation of myself and my family,” he explained.
It’s exactly why President Obama, my Labor Department colleagues, and I are fighting for this raise for some of America’s hardest working citizens.
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.