The Best Case for a Minimum Wage Raise: Workers’ Stories

by Seth Harris on March 22, 2013 · 3 comments

Photo: Acting Secretary of Labor Harris hosts a minimum wage round table in Indianapolis.

Acting Secretary of Labor Harris hosts a minimum wage round table in Indianapolis.

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.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dennis McCann March 23, 2013 at 2:17 am

Let’s collect these stories, it is what legislators can relate to and want to hear. These are their constituents! thanks for some good examples. The pushback is that business suffers and that hurts everyone, and that people are paid according to their worth.
But these are specious arguments and real stories overcome some of this knee jerk reaction. How many legislators KNOW someone on minimum wage? Not many!!!

2 Susie Kent March 23, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Our system is fundamentally inequitable and needs to rethink the basis of wage payments for the lower economic levels of society. I do not understand why the upper income and business community (who are well and perhaps overpaid for their services) do not grasp the concept of a living wage sufficient to allow a person/family meet their basic needs.
“Minimum wage” should not be tied to market concepts that ensure lowest possible cost to the employer. It should be based on a rational appraisal of what it takes a person/family to pay for market rent (0r other housing), food, health care, transportation (our system makes it impossible to work without wheels), insurance, reasonable clothing, child care (required to permit parents to work) and education communications and computer needs (since businesses are reducing costs by pushing services they previously provided on to the consumer of their goods — think airlines and ticket purchases, for examplel), and leave enough to permit retirement and education savings).
Businesses, banks and other economic powerhouses bitch about the need to furnish or subsidize health care, food and other needs for the poor but expect the poor to subsidize (in a hidden way) the business, banks and high wage earners by accepting the lowest possible wages so that these institutions can reap higher profits.
I would like to know what is included in “cost of living” computations because the results of those computations bear no resemblance to the real world most of us live in. This is well attested by the stories you are getting from the poor who daily must chose between necessities and cannot cover the total of their living needs. Wage earners who work full time or multiple jobs should never have to choose among food, healthcare and housing, telephone and transportation, child care and work. And it fries me to listen to the wealthier criticise the poor for their supposed inability to manage their incomes.

3 Jane Osburn March 25, 2013 at 9:11 am

Thank you! It’s time!

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