Seventy-five years ago this week, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill that established the first-ever national wage floor in the United States: the Fair Labor Standards Act. This landmark law has stood the test of time, keeping our middle class strong and our workers secure for three-quarters of a century. And the best way to mark its anniversary is to renew the Fair Labor Standards Act’s promise – by passing a minimum wage increase.
President Obama has called for an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour, and then indexing it to the cost of living so minimum-wage workers’ paychecks rise along with the prices of basic necessities.
This minimum wage increase would directly help 15 million workers across the country. In the five months since President Obama announced his proposal to increase the minimum wage, senior leaders from the Labor Department − including me − have traveled to more than two dozen cities to meet with low-wage workers and hear their stories. Stories of struggle and sacrifice, but also stories of pride and dignity. Stories of hard work and personal responsibility. Stories of parents fighting to build better lives for their children.
On Tuesday, I joined Vice President Joe Biden and 19 of these workers to celebrate the FLSA’s 75th anniversary. The workers, and millions like them, are struggling every day to get by. But they don’t want a handout. They want nothing more than an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.
Pattie Federico of Boston takes home less than $200 a week. As she spoke at the White House, she choked up when expressing her worry that she will lose her family home. She feels like the walls are closing in on her. She talked about how even an unforeseen $10 expense can be crippling. “It’s not really living,” she said, “it’s more like trying to survive.”
Edgar Acosta of Denver is studying to be a social worker, but to support his 4-month-old daughter, he works as a valet attendant and depends on tips for more than half of his income. “It’s not easy,” he said.
Irasema Cavazos of San Antonio is a home care worker. She needs a raise so she can fix the plumbing in her house, and buy fresh fruit and vegetables for her teenage children. She told us that it’s a myth that the only workers who earn the minimum wage are teenagers. “It’s families, heads of households, and it’s a struggle.”
William Ivey of Gary, Ind., fought back tears as he explained that he works two, sometimes three, jobs to provide a better life for his daughter. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he said.
These workers deserve better than to be stuck in poverty. They deserve better than to struggle to provide their families with the basic necessities. They deserve a pathway to the middle class. They deserve a raise.
During their visit to the White House, Vice President Biden met with the workers to let them know that the president will continue the fight to get them the raise they deserve. The vice president spoke about the minimum wage as a matter of both dignity and decency. He reminded us that an increase won’t put anyone on Easy Street, but it will help workers buy the goods and services they need from businesses on Main Street.
There’s a persistent myth that a higher minimum wage will trigger mass layoffs and have a devastating impact on our economy. In his day, President Roosevelt called the purveyors of this myth “calamity howl[ers].” The jobless rate was a staggering 19 percent in 1938. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, President Roosevelt signed it and employment increased. Since then, Congress has acted on nine occasions, generally with bipartisan support, to raise the minimum wage 22 times, and the calamity howlers’ doomsday scenarios never came to pass.
In fact, study after study from independent economists has found that a higher minimum wage has little to no negative effect on employment. And over time, real GDP per capita has steadily increased, even when the minimum wage has been raised.
A second persistent myth is that small business owners universally oppose any increase in the minimum wage. A recent survey found that two-thirds of small business owners support an increase in the federal minimum wage, with 40 percent strongly supporting an increase.
Business owners – including the small business owners with whom I met last week – understand that higher wages mean a more stable workforce, lower turnover, higher morale and more satisfied workers. But equally important, every worker I’ve met at a roundtable has assured me that more money in their pockets will mean they will spend more in local businesses and help their local economies to grow – and business owners know that.
I testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions (the HELP Committee) after Tuesday’s White House event with the workers I met at our roundtables sitting in the audience. Sen. Tom Harkin, the HELP Committee chairman, is the lead sponsor of legislation to raise the minimum wage. I look forward to working with him and other members of Congress to secure a raise for minimum-wage workers.
There are no more forceful and effective advocates for the president’s proposal than minimum-wage workers. But while they must return to their jobs, their families and their daily struggles, our campaign continues. On Wednesday and Thursday, I spoke with Diane Rehm of National Public Radio and syndicated radio host Bill Press about the FLSA and the minimum wage.
Over the next several months, we plan to work with our allies in Congress to see that legislation to raise the minimum wage moves forward, and that these workers’ voices are at the forefront of the debate. The Fair Labor Standards Act is as relevant in June 2013 as it was in June 1938. Maintaining the promise of the law – the promise of wages that allow workers to live, to raise families and to work their way into the middle class – requires that we raise the minimum wage.
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.
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