By TIM ROWDEN
Fifteen million workers would benefit from President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 and hour to $9 an hour – including 299,000 workers in Missouri and 463,000 workers in Illinois, acting U.S. Labor Secretary Seth Harris said.
Harris had to cancel a recently scheduled trip to St. Louis and Kansas City to meet with low-wage workers and promote President Obama’s support for increasing the federal minimum wage, but spoke with the Labor Tribune by phone.
Harris had hoped to meet with low-wage fast food workers in St. Louis who walked out at 30 fast food restaurants across the region last month demanding a living wage of $15 an hour and the right for form a union without retaliation.
“These minimum wage workers are the most powerful, most effective advocates for this policy,” Harris said. “What we’re trying to do is avoid getting caught up in the same old abstract debate over economic policy. Helping them is not only the fair thing to do and the right thing to do but the economically smart thing to do.”
Harris has been listening to dozens of minimum-wage workers at more than two-dozen roundtable events that the Labor Department has held around the country since the president first made his proposal to raise the minimum wage during his State of the Union Address in January. He’s also talked with workers during dozens of radio appearances.
$$ INTO ECONOMY
Minimum wage workers have told Harris when they get the raise – which for a full-time worker would amount to about $3,500 a year – they plan to spend it not on luxury items but at the grocery store, on car repairs and other daily essentials.
“It would help the local economy and help the national economy grow,” Harris said. “Seventy percent of the American economy is based on consumer spending. I haven’t met a minimum wage worker yet who has told me that they’re looking forward to getting this increase and putting it in their offshore bank account. It’s all going to get put back into the local economy and help small businesses and local employers.”
Missouri’s state minimum wage is a dime more than the federal minimum, at $7.35 an hour, because of a cost-of-living clause in the state law that provides for annual adjustments.
Illinois’ minimum wage is $8.25 an hour. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed raising that to $10 an hour over the next four years.
At the federal level, Harris acknowledged that Obama faces a challenge in winning over Congress, particularly the Republican-controlled House, but said he was optimistic, in part, because polls have shown overwhelming support for increasing the federal minimum wage, last raised in 2009.
“I’m hoping that over the course of the next calendar year, but more likely in 2014, that we’ll see Congress act on and pass a minimum wage increase,” Harris said.
Harris notes that the minimum wage was increased in 1996 when Newt Gingrich controlled the House of Representatives and in 2007 when George W. Bush was president. The 2007 increase was approved as a three-step process. The last increase kicked in in 2009.
“The large majority of the American people are for it,” Harris said. “They think the President’s proposal is fair. They think it’s consistent with our values and they believe it’s good for our economy.”
Harris said a recent survey of small business owners found two-thirds supported increasing the minimum wage.
“I think that they understand that that money is coming their way, and they also think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Even workers who currently earn above the minimum wage could potentially benefit from an increase, Harris said, as employers like to differentiate between experienced and less experienced workers and would likely increase their more experienced workers’ and managers’ wages as well.