Stuck with the 5-1-5

The Democrats had a plan: Hike the minimum wage — mired at $5.15 since 1996 — by $2.10 over the next two years. The GOP offered its own solution: Raise mandated hourly-worker pay by $1.10 over 18 months while reducing the number of businesses that have to comply with paying minimum wage. Neither plan made it through the US Senate on Monday, so $5.15 remains the going rate.

The news has to be devastating to many American workers trying to support themselves and their families on a pittance: Prices for food, fuel, and other necessities are on the rise, yet minimum-wage workers haven’t seen a raise in nearly nine years. Think about this: Before taxes, a 40-hour-per-week laborer makes a little over $800 a month. In Baltimore, my present stomping grounds, that simply is not a liveable wage. I make a bit more than minimum wage at my shitjob, and my after-tax income can’t cover all my family’s necessities — survival must be even more of a dicey proposition for those making the bare minimum or less. One plaintive gripe comes from one such working person, Blogcritics’ Matt Schafer.

Kudos and thanks to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who pushed for the increase to $7.25 an hour, and to the 46 senators who voted in favor of it, but what are those who opposed it thinking? Were they thinking about the effect an increase would have on businesses or about the difficulties faced by the working poor? It is evident to me that while most lawmakers indeed may care about low-income workers on some level, they simply don’t understand that every day is a struggle for too many hardworking people. Lawmakers get raises every time they opt to give themselves one; the rise in the cost of living is not a big deal to them. The rest of us don’t have that luxury, and minimum-wage workers, whose income can’t keep up with the rising cost of living, are hit hardest. Why didn’t the Senate — who supposedly represent the people — take some sort of action to lessen their misery?


For many lawmakers, sadly, it is because they worry more about businesses than about workers. The National Restaurant Association, for instance, opposed the Kennedy plan, saying that it would mean a 41 percent increase in the base hourly wage, which would mean a loss of jobs and price increases. Their argument may appear reasonable to a degree, but consider this: Most restaurant workers I know work for less than minimum wage — they earn the bulk of their livelihood through tips. Addressing potential job losses, the solution, I think, lies in improving public education and providing displaced-worker training in poor areas of the nation so that people have options other than minimum-wage jobs. The Economic Policy Institute, by the way, argues that raising the base wage actually would create employment opportunities and says that the supposed job losses don’t matter.

Whatever Congress’ reason for its inaction, miring people in poverty is not the answer. It simply doesn’t make sense for workers or for business.

And neither does the plan suggested by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), which was rejected by 61 senators. The measures he proposed would have enacted rule changes allowing a reduction in minimum-wage and overtime-pay protections for millions of workers.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, businesses that bring in less than $500,000 a year do not have to pay their workers the $5.15 minimum wage unless the employee is involved in some form of interstate commerce. That could include producing products that are sold in a different state or even taking orders over the phone from people in other states.

Democrats and some Republicans objected to a provision of the Santorum amendment that would have exempted additional small businesses from paying the minimum wage by raising the $500,000 threshold to $1 million.

More significantly, the legislation would have gotten rid of the interstate provision. Santorum said the change to interstate commerce rules was intended to correct a “drafting error” from the late 1980s that had forced small businesses to pay minimum wage to many more workers than Congress had originally intended.

The most recent information on the number of small businesses that fall into that category is from 1997. The Census bureau found that there were 7.5 million firms and establishments (employing some 11.7 million workers) that made less than $500,000. According to the 1997 figures, if the threshold was raised to $1 million, an additional 1.5 million businesses would have qualified for that exemption (businesses in that higher category employed some 6.8 million workers).

Another controversial provision in Santorum’s legislation would have given employers the option of creating a two-week work period instead of one week, which could have changed the amount workers are paid in overtime.

Current law states that employers must pay overtime if an employee works more than 40 hours a week. Santorum’s bill would have allowed employers to offer an 80-hour work period over two weeks as long as an employee agreed to that schedule. …

“What a deal,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “After waiting eight years, [Santorum] helps one out of four of the workers Sen. Kennedy helps, and for the 1.8 million [workers] he helps, he pushes five times as many overboard, and says you’re not going to get overtime, you’re not going to get minimum wage.”

The Economic Policy Institute offers more analysis of the Santorum proposal, which it calls a “trojan horse for workers.” (The link requires Adobe Reader.)

One might surmise that maintaining the status quo is preferable than having to survive under the Santorum plan. And that may be true. But there were other options: the Kennedy plan, the Santorum increase minus the stripping of worker protections, or some other plan that offered at least some sort of minimum-wage increase. The Senate opted not to do anything other than show their disinterest in the working poor. American workers, minimum-wage and otherwise, should be livid — hopefully, livid enough to call their lawmakers and voice their anger, hurt, and dissatisfaction. (You can reach senators and representatives via the Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121.)

Tip o’ the baseball cap to Nathan Newman for the EPI links.

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6 thoughts on “Stuck with the 5-1-5

  1. The fact is that you would have an extremely difficult time finding anyone in the U.S. supporting a family on minimum wage. People in the fast food industry–where I live anyway–make well above $5.15 per hour. Illegal immigrants–renowned for working cheaply–won’t work for minimum wage. Why don’t you find out exactly how many in the U.S. support families on minimum wage? Last I heard it was a few thousand. If a few limousine liberals pooled the tiniest fraction of their resources they could easily give these people a raise. Think It’ll happen?

  2. You might have a difficult finding someone supporting a family — or attempting to do so — on minimum wage. I know of at least three. Don’t assume about others.

    About three percent of American workers are in minimum-wage jobs. About half of them are over the age of 25. Many of them are seniors forced to work. Many are in part-time jobs (and many of them wish they could get full-time, but have not been able to secure employment of more than 35 hours per week). And many cobble together a series of part-time min-wage jobs in hopes of making ends meet.

    In short, of course we are talking about a minority of the population — but we are talking about an important segment of society. Doesn’t their survival and well-being matter?

    Consider that there are folks making above the poverty level who, in reality, *are* poor. (I would count myself among this group: making more than the minimum wage but still not enough to make ends meet; having health insurance that is far from adequate and that I can’t afford to use [which I have learned quite recently, as I have been recently hospitalized for a month-long bout of pneumonia that it still kicking my ass].) If things are this horrid for someone like me, who has a college education, who works like a fiend and still can’t get ahead or find work in her own field, just imagine how things are for those who have it much, much worse!

    Go ahead and semantically slap the Limousine Libs. But if you don’t slap the Repugnant Reactionaries too, you are only out to slam lefties and your opinion, with all due respect, is less than worthless. If you really cared about that “few thousand,” you would put the blame on all of them. And you would demand that something be done to help that “few thousand.”

  3. The minimum wage is a statement of the values of our society. If we say that people who work a certain class of unskilled jobs don’t deserve to make enough money to live on, then we are calling that class of people unworthy.

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