by Bernice Yeung, California Watch
California workers in Inglewood and Sacramento will join labor advocates across the country at rallies today to support forthcoming legislation by U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., that would increase the federal minimum wage by $2.55 per hour.
Under Miller’s proposal, the minimum wage would jump from $7.25 to $9.80 per hour over three years, and wages would then subsequently be adjusted for inflation each year. The federal minimum wage last was raised in 2007 from $5.15 per hour.
“Raising the minimum wage is about respecting work for the millions of Americans who work hard every day yet still live in poverty,” Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee Democrats, said in an email.
“The fact remains that the minimum wage today buys less than it did in 1956,” he added. “It’s time to start valuing and respecting those who work hard and play by the rules.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
Although California’s minimum wage is higher than the federal standard at $8 per hour, state labor advocates said wage improvements still need to be made.
"Eight dollars an hour is still not enough to support a family, and it's not even enough to support an individual who has hopes of a decent life," said Jacob Hay of Good Jobs LA, a group that advocates for workers’ rights.
Proponents for the federal increase said the current minimum wage amounts to earnings of about $15,000 a year for a full-time worker, and because wages have not been tied to inflation, the real purchasing power of minimum wage has fallen to $6.77 per hour in the past three years. In California, the yearly paycheck for minimum wage employees who work 40 hours a week is about $16,600.
But business organizations oppose proposals that increase the minimum wage because they said it could reduce the number of jobs that are available in the first place.
“Mandatory wage increases hurt not only small businesses, but their employees as well,” the National Federation of Independent Business states on its website. “Big corporations do not have to absorb the cost because most minimum-wage jobs are offered by small businesses. It has not been proven to reduce poverty or narrow the income gap and puts a stranglehold on America's top job creators: small businesses. The overwhelming majority of economists continue to affirm the job-killing nature of mandatory wage increases: mandatory minimum-wage increases end up reducing employment levels for those people with the lowest skills.”
A study released last week by the National Employment Law Project, an employee rights advocacy organization, said most low-wage workers are, in fact, employees of corporations that are in a “strong financial position,” the report said.
“Most of the low-wage employers that would be disproportionately affected by an increase in the minimum wage are in a strong financial position and can afford the cost of a higher minimum wage,” the report states.
Policy discussions about raising the minimum wage long have been a battle of conflicting research over its true economic effects, said Jeannette Wicks-Lim, an assistant research professor at the University of Massachusetts’ Political Economy Research Institute.
“The main reason why people are concerned about the impact on minimum wage of low-wage workers is over whether it will jeopardize business opportunities,” she said. “There is a ton of research on this question, and the debate has been going on back and forth decades.”
Wicks-Lim said the recent research shows minimum wage laws enacted in the past “have not had a negative impact on workers’ job opportunities.”
“Increases to minimum wage have not produced the loss of jobs in the ways that opponents of these types of proposals predict,” she said.
In addition to the federal bill, there also are efforts to increase the minimum wage in San Jose, where voters will consider a ballot initiative in November that would give minimum wage workers a raise to $10 per hour. Wages also would be adjusted for inflation.
The proposal emerged from a San Jose State University sociology class taught by Scott Myers-Lipton. “Faced with the rising costs of gas, food, and tuition, the students concluded that making a wage of $8 an hour was simply not enough to live in Silicon Valley,” he wrote in an email.
The initiative is partially modeled on a wage policy in San Francisco that establishes a higher minimum wage than the rest of the state at $10.24 per hour.
Business organizations said the San Jose initiative would negatively affect the local economy. “If $8 an hour is not livable, then neither is $10, frankly,” said Tab Berg, a consultant for a coalition of business groups called Save San Jose Jobs, Oppose Government Mandated Wage Hike.
Under the initiative, the increase in wages “isn’t going to be a significant change for workers, but what it will do is limit the number of jobs that are going to be available at that wage level, and it will be worse off for the people that they (the bill proponents) say they are going to help,” Berg said.
Small-business owners in downtown San Jose’s San Pedro Square Market said recently that while they are sympathetic to minimum wage employees and supported the raise in concept, they also had concerns.
Rose Mendoza, who owns Ay Dios Mio, a boutique specializing in Mexican folk art accessories and gifts, said increases to the minimum wage should be tied to an economic benchmark like the Consumer Price Index.
“I want a raise every year, and so do minimum wage workers,” said Mendoza, who also works in the finance department of tech company Intel. “I support an increase, but it should be done annually and tied to an economic indicator, and then I think it would be very fair to employers, and workers could keep up with inflation.”
Mike Millares of The Showroom, an apparel store, said he also feels conflicted about the minimum wage proposal. He opened the shop in May and said, “Technically, we’re still starting.”
“I understand the need for a raise to minimum wage, but it makes me really not want to hire someone,” he said.
And while Marcus Sparks, 18, helped spread the word about the rallies in Sacramento, he will not participate in them because he will be earning minimum wage that day as a fry cook at a Sacramento-area McDonald’s.
Sparks will start college at American River College in the fall and he said he hopes to start his own clothing line one day. He said he supports efforts to increase the minimum wage because having more money in his pocket will help him pay for books, art supplies and food.
“My mother is struggling, and the reason I want to do better for myself is because I don’t want to have to depend on her,” he said.
Sparks said he would like to get a raise of about $2 per hour so he could earn $20,000 a year.
“I could pay more bills and not depend on others,” he said. “It would make it easier to live and to live comfortably.”
Bernice Yeung is a journalist for California Watch.