Kamala Harris has committed to raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which would more than double the current wage of $7.25, if elected alongside Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. The federally set wage for tipped workers is even lower, at $2.13 an hour.
Mr Biden’s running mate – appearing at a virtual town hall on Thursday hosted by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to campaign for the candidates – said that the coronavirus “has been an accelerator” that has magnified existing inequities across the US.
“Raising the minimum wage is about the floor and not the ceiling,” she said.
She also said the administration would commit to supporting paid family leave and paid sick leave, ending what Senator Sanders called the “international embarrassment” that the US does not have either, unlike other industrialised nations, at the federal level.
“We have to end it,” she said. “It’s not only an embarrassment. It’s morally wrong.”
The California senator said “no family should pay more than 5 per cent of their income on child care, period,” as she renewed a push for universal pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds.
“There is this suggestion we’ve heard in certain circles – ‘if you extend this they won’t know what to do with the money,’” she said about the wage increase and extension of federal assistance programmes. “Because there is this ugly premise that people who are low income or poor choose to be that way, or don’t have the same ethics everyone else has, or are irresponsible. And this is part of what’s wrong with the way we have crafted economic policy when it comes to what is morally right on a global scale.”
Senator Sanders, who emerged as Mr Biden’s chief opponent in the primaries, praised the senator’s “passion and decency” and “willingness to fight for people who do not have a voice.”
Senator Harris called Senator Sanders, whose platform has centred economic justice and a nationalised healthcare agenda, “an extraordinary leader.”
“The majority of those debates would not have been on the topic of healthcare in America” without his presence on the debate stage, she said. “You really are a treasure.”
Senator Sanders has held more than a dozen virtual campaign events during the runup to the general election to support the former vice president and progressive congressional candidates.
Their first appearance together on the campaign trail, five days before Election Day, highlighted the work of labour groups and workers pressuring lawmakers and campaigning for legislation that would raise state and federal minimum wages, which came into sharp relief on the national stage during the final presidential debate on 22 October.
Following the debate, internet searches for “wages” spiked in 44 states after moderator Kristen Welker asked the candidates about raising the minimum wage.
The former vice president said he supports raising the federal minimum in the middle of the public health crisis as businesses struggle to stay open amid forced closures and diminishing revenues.
“One of the things we are going to have to do is we are going to have to bail them out, too,” he said. “We should be bailing them out now, those small businesses. … You've got 1 in 6 of them going under. They are not going to be able to make it back.”
Donald Trump opposes raising the federal wage, claiming that it would “be ruinous” to force employers to raise wages.
“I think it should be a state option,” he said. “Alabama is different than New York, New York is different from Vermont. Every state is different. It should be a state option.”
Seven states and Washington DC – which encompass roughly one-third of American workers – have passed legislation to raise their minimum wages to $15. New York, California and Massachusetts became the first states to do so.
But $7.25 an hour remains the minimum wage in 21 others.
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Tennessee don’t have a state-set minimum wage, instead relying on the federal rate.
Georgia and Wyoming have set their minimum to just $5.15, lower than the federal rate, which applies instead.
In 2019, the Congressional Budget Office reported that a $15 federal minimum wage would raise incomes for 27 million Americans. A wage hike would immediately lift 1.3 million Americans out of poverty.
The Economic Policy Institute reported that the minimum wage, if adjusted for inflation, should have exceeded $15 by 2020.
“Yet since the late 1960s, lawmakers have let the value of the minimum wage erode, allowing inflation to gradually reduce the buying power of a minimum wage income,” according to a 2019 report.
The gradual increases in the years that followed have been too small to meet the decline in wage value after 1968, when the minimum wage peaked at its inflation-adjusted terms, the organisation reported.
A $7.25 wage in 2018 was worth 14.8 per cent less than when it was last raised nearly 10 years earlier, after adjusting for inflation, and 28.6 per cent below its peak value in 1968, when the minimum wage was the equivalent of $10.15 in 2018 dollars, the report found.
“This decline in purchasing power means low-wage workers have to work longer hours now just to achieve the standard of living that was considered the bare minimum half a century ago,” according to the report.
A minimum wage increase would have a significant impact among Black workers and people of colour – Black workers make up 11.8 per cent of the workforce but 16.9 per cent of affected workers who would see wage increases.
It also would impact nearly four out of 10 single parents work work (nearly 40 per cent), including 43 per cent of working single mothers, the report found.
Cris Cardona, a shift manager at a McDonald’s restaurant in Florida who has joined the Fight for $15 movement, said that his father was laid off during the pandemic, and his mother has worked as a bank custodian “nonstop” since the pandemic, despite a compromised immune system.
He makes $11.15 an hour. With their combined three incomes, all under $12 an hour, “we still struggle” to cover healthcare, food and other costs, he said.
“How does it happen that in our great country we have millions of workers earning starvation wages?” Senator Sanders said. “You can’t make it on 10 or 12 bucks an hour.”
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