Too Many Stories to Tell: My Minimum Wage Roundtable in Baltimore

by Seth Harris on May 16, 2013 · 5 comments

In the past three months, I’ve met with workers earning at or near the minimum wage in 13 cities across the country. These workers have educated me about what it’s like to live and try to raise a family on the minimum wage. They have also shared with me what a moderate increase in the minimum wage – like the one President Obama has proposed, from $7.25 to $9 an hour – would mean in their lives. They’ve told stories of difficult daily choices, of sacrificing one necessity for another, just to survive.

Acting Secretary Harris at the Baltimore minimum wage roundtable, May 14, 2013.

This week, I traveled to Baltimore to visit Our Daily Bread Employment Center, where I heard some of the most compelling stories yet. Both the current and former labor secretaries of Maryland, as well as representatives from the mayor’s office, joined me in listening to about two dozen workers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some were fighting to overcome mistakes made earlier in life, some either had degrees or were pursuing post-secondary education; but they all agreed raising the minimum wage to $9 would give them just enough breathing room to support their families and increase their chances of advancement.

De’Warren has a bachelor’s degree and someday hopes to start his own business.  But this winter, his minimum wage salary forced him to choose between paying the electric bill and purchasing food for his kids. He chose food. When his electricity was cut off, he had to store the food in plastic coolers and tried to grill everything outside before it spoiled.

The roundtable discussion took place at Our Daily Bread Employment Center.

Erin, who works at a food kiosk in the mall making the minimum wage, fought back tears as she described recently taking on a second job with one goal in mind: getting a place for her and her son to live. “I’ve been homeless since my son was born,” Erin said. “Our survival has depended completely on help from friends, or organizations like Our Daily Bread, and I can’t live like this much longer.”

Kali, another single mom, had a similar story. Currently living in a homeless shelter with her daughter, Kali made it clear that she doesn’t have any illusions about affording luxuries, even if the minimum wage is raised: “I’m not trying to buy my daughter a video game system here – I’m trying to put a decent roof over her head.”

Other similar stories were echoed around the table. Jonathan, a 25-year old father, knows he needs to go back to school to upgrade his skills but can’t afford to. Erin, a waitress, admitted to dragging herself to work with the flu because she couldn’t afford to lose a day’s pay. And Laura, a fast food employee, would like to get her and her teenage daughter off of food stamps.

 

Acting Secretary Harris poses with some of the roundtable participants

Acting Secretary Harris with some of the roundtable participants.

The roundtable lasted 30 minutes longer than scheduled, and I would have let it go on all day had I been able. Afterward, a reporter asked me if I’d describe the event as heart-wrenching.  While I understood why he asked the question, I said “no.” These low-wage workers have shared their stories for me; their resolve, their resilience, their depth of commitment to their families should ennoble and empower all of us.

The roundtables have convinced me that these low-wage workers are their own best advocates. Beyond all of the powerful economic arguments in favor, raising the minimum wage is an issue of human dignity. Eddie, one of the roundtable participants, put it as well as I ever could: “With a raise, it will make people go out more sincerely and pursue work. As a people, as Americans, we need something to look forward to.”

The president has encouraged me to continue giving these hardworking Americans an opportunity to be heard.  So my staff and I will move forward with our minimum wage tour in the coming weeks, gathering and amplifying more stories as we build momentum for the president’s proposal.

Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joel J. Carlson May 17, 2013 at 1:50 am

Minimum Wage was never meant to be used to raise a family or to live on it. It is and always has been, an entry pay level for beginning workers. Don’t you understand that everytime you raise the minimum wage level, you take one more brick from all of us trying to build our lives???? PLEASE stop the destruction of the MIDDLE CLASS. Leave minimum wage where it’s at and even consider a cut. You need to pursue a raise for those of us on career paths or in UNION JOBS!!!!!!!!!!!

2 Teresa Hageberg May 17, 2013 at 9:16 am

Minimum Wage will never raise a family or leave you with extra money in your pocket. It is an entry level pay allowing employers an opportunity to take a inexperience person and mold them into a valuable team member. Wages are the largest expense an employer has and when you increase wages you increase other added cost that is tied to wages, so product price will have to increase inorder for employers to pay the higher cost. Therefore $9.00 will no longer be a living wage because instead of paying $8 for a combo meal you will pay $12 (Midwest examples). One needs to understand that when you increase the cost to produce items the cost of those items go up and the Middle Class who doesn’t get a pay raise will slowly fade away.

3 M Foster May 17, 2013 at 10:36 am

It is heartbreaking to me that we are having to hold roundtable discussions with participants pouring their hearts out attempting to persuade that it is a needed step to raise minimum wage just $1.75 when athletes who are offering us no more than sporting entertainment and “bad boy headlines” millions of dollars per year.

The castes are being set and it certainly won’t be the minimum wage workers that will be able to afford the luxury of sporting entertainment from any venue other than in front of the TV, assuming of course, they can afford cable.

4 Nannette Day May 17, 2013 at 4:34 pm

I have to agree with Ms. Hageberg. She has made some very good points in reference to the costs of all goods and services rising due to minimum wage increase. I always knew when I went to the grocery store if the bill was passed to increse minimum wage for over 15 years. I could judge the amount of the increase by the cost of a pound of hamburger. So where would be a happy medium for all consumers, wage earners, head of household, and the American public?

5 Dq December 5, 2013 at 10:38 am

Once you have developed some type of skill in the work place, there are entry level position jobs that will pay $15 an hour. But the jobs are in the corporate environment where some type of skill is required. In fast food/service industry; that is where you learn those skills needed for those other entry level jobs that will lead you to a career. It is unfair to those that have worked longer and harder to become better skilled in order to make more money; making the same as someone who has virtually no experience or skills.
Why are you raising a family on an entry level position? Shouldn’t you be striving to achieve more in life where you can gain a marketable skill and then rightfully earn more.
Just a thought.

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