Working Hard for the Minimum Wage

Editor’s note: This blog was originally published as an op-ed in the Akron Beacon Journal Online.

ReJeanne, a young mother who lives in Akron, Ohio, dreams of owning her own restaurant. Right now, however, things are tough and she’s struggling to get by while earning the minimum wage at a restaurant owned by someone else. Even though she works full time, she’s homeless. “Don’t judge me when you see me,” she told me when we met earlier this week. “I don’t want a hand out.”

For the past three months I’ve been traveling around the country talking with workers like ReJeanne who have an important stake in President Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9 per hour. I’ve been to more than a dozen cities, from Philadelphia to Phoenix, from Akron to Atlanta. At every stop, I heard stories of extraordinary struggle and sacrifice.

At the Urban League in Akron last week, where I was joined by Mayor Don Plusquellic, we heard ReJeanne’s story and many others. Natashia has been unable to work full time because her minimum wage salary won’t cover her child care costs of $144 per week. She works part time, relying on family to watch her child, and is forced to take a chance every day on unreliable transportation. There is no slack in her tight budget for emergency car repairs. “The car doesn’t seem to know how to work when it needs to,” she told me.

Acting Secretary Harris talks to minimum wage workers in Akron, May 20, 2013.

Acting Secretary Harris talks to minimum wage workers in Akron, May 20, 2013.

Both Natashia and ReJeanne are doing everything society asks of them: They are working hard, they are raising their children, and they are taking responsibility for themselves. For them, it’s not about getting ahead. It’s about not falling too far behind.

They, along with 569,000 workers throughout Ohio and 15 million across the country, would benefit from President Obama’s proposal to give minimum wage workers a well-deserved raise — to $9 per hour by 2015 and then indexing it to inflation thereafter.

But aren’t Natashia and ReJeanne the exception, not the rule? Doesn’t the minimum wage only pay for a middle-class teenager’s weekend mall excursion? Minimum wage workers don’t pay for rent, or diapers, or bus fare, right?

That’s the myth we hear from the chorus of Cassandras every time a minimum wage increase is on the table. The truth is minimum wage workers are breadwinners. They contributed almost half of their households’ income in 2011. Only one in five is a teenager. Sixty percent are working women. This isn’t super-sized-sodas-at-the-mall money. This is pay-the-bills, feed-your-children money.

It isn’t just these workers who benefit from a raise in the minimum wage. More take-home pay for low-wage workers will provide a shot in the arm to our entire economy. Higher paid workers will spend more money at local businesses here in Akron and across the country. That’s why a recent poll disclosed that two-thirds of small business owners support the president’s proposal to raise the minimum wage. It’s good for their businesses. It’s fair. And it’s the right thing to do.

Anyone who goes to a supermarket knows that milk costs more today than it did a few years ago. I don’t know anyone who has ever renewed their lease and seen the rent go down. And I doubt any newspaper has ever printed a headline that read: “Transportation costs plummet.” So why shouldn’t minimum wage workers’ wages keep up? Congress has only approved two minimum wage increases in the past 15 years.

A recurring theme during our conversation in Akron, and in all the other minimum-wage roundtables I have participated in, is the connection between a paycheck and pride. Everyone I’ve spoken to has put a human face on the countless studies that show better pay equals higher worker productivity and morale. None of these people wants to rely on others for support. They want to be productive and feel good about what they do. Akron resident Sarah doesn’t want to be on welfare — not just for her sake, but for her child’s: “I was raised on ‘the system,’ ” she told me. “I want to show my son that you don’t have to be dependent on it.”

Here’s what struck me about my day in Akron: Two workers I met, Sandra and Darla, were more interested in discussing solutions than in recounting their struggles. Forget about what I could do for them. They wanted to know what they could do to bring about a minimum wage increase.

I told them: Keep the conversation going. Engage each other, and engage your elected officials who represent you in Washington. Just like life on the minimum wage, it’s about hard work.

Something they know all about.

Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.

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