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Examining The Call For Increasing The Minimum Wage

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(Photos: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Throughout the week, Here & Now is looking at the call for an increase in the minimum wage, and the impact it would have on states, the federal government and workers themselves. To kick off the series, Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Eric Morath, who covers the economy for The Wall Street Journal.

Each day this week, Here & Now  will also highlight someone who is working for minimum wage. Today, Bridget Hughes, a fast-food worker in Kansas City, Missouri, talks with Jeremy Hobson about her job.

Interview Highlights: Eric Morath and Bridget Hughes

Eric Morath, Wall Street Journal Economy Reporter

How many people earn the minimum wage?

“Well, only about 1.3 million people earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. That’s a small number, that’s like one percent of the workforce, but of course many more people earn a little bit more than the minimum wage and half of all states have a minimum wage above the federal level, so another way to think about it, the economic policy institute says that 53.6 million workers, a third of the labor force, earns less than $15 an hour.”

What kind of jobs are people doing to earn the minimum wage?

“Well a minimum wage worker is most likely to be in one of two industries, either food service or retail. Those are the most common minimum wage workers and that’s why a lot of the attention has been on fast food strikes. They’re a quarter of all minimum wage workers, but there’s a number of other industries where minimum wage workers are employed. You think about some light industrial work, clerical workers in offices and even the healthcare industry. Home healthcare is one of the biggest employers of minimum wage.”

What is the age range for people earning minimum wage?

“Much is made on both sides of this debate of how old is a minimum wage worker. According to the federal government, just over half of minimum wage workers are younger than 24, so there’s certainly a bias towards younger workers, but not everyone under 24 is a high school student in an upper-class suburb. I talked to a woman just yesterday who’s 22 years old, she’s working at McDonalds, and she’s raising a one-year-old child on minimum wage or very close to it. When a third of all workers are making less than $15 an hour, there’s someone of every age that is earning close to the minimum wage, but it definitely does skew younger and that is a concern of some economists, that you’ll shut people out of entering the labor market, and that is a big worry because if people aren’t able to get that first job and get that experience, then they might not be able to get that next job that can pay significantly more.”

How long do people end up staying in minimum wage jobs?

“There’s a mix. If [it’s] your first minimum wage job, and you are this sort of stereotypical high schooler, that might better prepare you for college and for a career, so you would rise up. I talked to a woman though yesterday, she’s been working at Wendy’s since 2007 and she now makes $10 an hour, she started at the minimum wage and makes $10 an hour, so that’s, I suppose, a 30 percent increase in her pay over the past seven or eight years, but that’s still not a lot of money. So there are certainly a whole class of people that are sort of stuck in these low-wage jobs and there’s not the pathway that there once was to move into higher paying positions in a job such as a manufacturing position.”

How much variety is there in minimum wage levels across the country?

“It’s become a real patchwork in this country. You know, among the highest minimum wages now are kind of in Seattle, San Francisco. Those cities have already committed to moving to $15 an hour. Within states, California and Massachusetts have the highest minimum at $10. California itself is moving to $15 by 2022, but yet 21 states follow the federal minimum wage and that includes very populous states like Texas, Pennsylvania and Georgia so there’s wide swaths of this country where $7.25 is the minimum wage.”

How does the minimum wage compare with wages most workers are making?

“If you think about median wage, which half of workers earn more than this and half of workers earn less, $17.40 is the median wage in the U.S. So if you think about $15, that’s not terribly far off from that level, but it varies greatly across the country. In the San Francisco area, for example, you’re talking about a median wage of $26.34 an hour so $15 doesn’t have, as economists say, ‘that much of a bite.’ There’s not a whole lot of people that are making well below that. Think about Alabama, basically half of the workforce would be entitled to a raise if Alabama went to $15 an hour. That supports the calls that maybe it is better to have a patchwork where states have the ability to be below or above other states because New York and Alabama are not the same place.”

How does the U.S. compare to other countries on minimum wage?

“We are very low compared to, especially European countries. The minimum wage that is proposed in California and New York would bring us to the level seen close to in France or the United Kingdom, but really when you look at industrialized countries, it’s based on different measures because of currency, but by some measures only Mexico has a lower minimum wage than the U.S.”

Is the mood right on the federal level for the move to a higher minimum wage?

“Not really at the federal level. I’m here at Washington and I think there’s a lot of strong advocacy and a lot is made of this issue but it’s not something that federal lawmakers on the Republican side have embraced, and that’s going to make it difficult to get some movement. The last president to sign a minimum wage increase was not Obama, it was President Bush. You’d need a Republican, maybe president or leadership in the Congress, to say $7.25 is too low of a floor, even in the poorest states.”

Bridget Hughes, employee at Wendy’s

How much are you making at Wendy’s

“I am currently making $8.75 as a crew member.”

How many hours are you working?

“I typically work anywhere from 35 to 40 hours. I may work more than that depending on if people don’t show up or things like that.”

Has your pay always been at minimum wage, even after 9 years with the company?

“Yes, I started at 16 at $7.25 and now at 25 years old I’m making $8.75.”

Is there any way you could get a raise within the company, without intervention from the government?

“Yes, I have been considered for promotions before, but have been told that I was too emotional, I’ve been told that somebody was more qualified, you know various reasons. I am working towards getting promoted within the company, I just for whatever reason haven’t gotten there yet.”

How are you able to live on that wage, with your husband as a gas station attendant?

“Yes, he makes a little bit more than I do, but still he only makes $9.50 an hour and it’s definitely very hard. We have to budget very tightly, decide whether to pay the utilities this week, the rent this week, or do we give our children clothes or food, or even day to day expenses such as gas and bus fare, things like that. We definitely have to rub pennies together a lot of times just to stay afloat.”

What can help this problem for you?

“Well, for one I’ve been organizing with my coworkers for the last year and a half and going on strike and protesting against these billion dollar companies and letting them know that, hey we deserve to be able to pay our bills. We deserve to be able to survive and have some type of stability but aside from that, all workers deserve a living wage. I mean, everybody who works full time and pays taxes should be able to go home and pay their bills and know that they don’t have to stress about how to feed their family.”

Why have you decided to stay at Wendy’s?

“When you have a family to take care of, sometimes you just don’t have the time to go out and wait and look for a better job and once you are working in a fast-food job or retail or other low-wage job, it’s often hard to find time with that job to even go out and look for a better one once you’re actually working.”

Guest

  • Eric Morath, economy reporter, The Wall Street Journal. He tweets @EricMorath.
  • Bridget Hughes, a Wendy’s employee in Kansas City, Missouri.
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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