Raising the Minimum Wage

If there ever was an argument for a big increase in the minimum wage, a new report from the National Women’s Law Center provides it.

The report confirms what people see with their own eyes: The U.S. economy is gaining private-sector jobs again, but they’re all low-wage jobs, and hundreds of thousands of them are minimum-wage jobs.

And based on federal data, projections say that pattern will continue through 2022.  That’s not healthy for workers, families or the U.S. economy.

The federal minimum wage is now $7.25 an hour and it hasn’t gone up since the GOP George W. Bush administration.  Almost two dozen states now have higher minimums than that, while a handful of states – all in the anti-worker South except for Wyoming – have lower state minimums or no state minimum wage laws at all.

And the tipped wage is even worse.  That’s the federal minimum for millions of servers and others who depend on tips.  They’re supposed to get $2.13 an hour, with employers making up the difference between that and the federal minimum.  That’s often not the case.  They get less than the federal minimum, even with the tips.

Democratic President Barack Obama and organized labor are touting a hike in the regular federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, spread over several years.  That’s not enough for the low-wage workers who have taken to the nation’s streets.  They want a $15 hourly wage – and the right to organize without employer interference.

They’ll need it, the analysis and federal data show.

The Labor Department calculates the U.S. will have 160 million jobs by 2022, 15.6 million (10%) more than in 2012.  But look where big job growth will be.  Here are the four industries expected to grow the most, in percentages, by 2022:

• Personal care aides, adding 581,000 workers (up 48.8%), to 1.77 million.  The 2012 median wage for those aides – where half of the workers are above and half below – was $19,910, not far above the present federal minimum, which is around $15,000 yearly for a full-time 40-hours-per-week employee.

• Home health care aides, up 48.5% (+424,000), to 1.99 million.  Median wage: $20,820 in 2012.

• Medical secretaries, up 36% (+189,000), to 715,000.  Median wage in 2012: $31,350.  That’s $3,000 under the 2012 median for all U.S. workers.  It’s the only big-gain occupation whose median is within screaming distance of the median for all.

• Medical assistants, up 29% (+163,000) to 724,000 by 2022.  Median wage in 2012: $29,370.

The fast food industry, the lowest-paying sector of all, isn’t among the top 10 in percentage growth, but it’s fifth in absolute numbers, projected to add 422,000 workers (14%) by 2022, to 3.39 million.  It’s also dead last in median wages in 2012: $18,260.

Note that we’re talking median wages here, not minimum wages.  But if the median is the mid-point where half the workers in an industry earn below the figure, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that millions of workers are earning the federal minimum wage or just above it.

The Labor Department calculates that one of every 20 U.S. workers earns the minimum wage or less.  In some states, the proportion is higher.  Idaho leads the list, with one of every 13 workers earning that federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, or under.

The U.S. minimum wage, if the worker toils full-time 40 hours weekly and doesn’t get robbed by his or her boss, is just over 40% of the U.S. median wage.  Until 1968, it was above 50%.  Since then, it usually has been under that ratio.

So here’s our point: Yes, it’s great to add jobs.  After the Bush Crash, that’s very welcome.  But now we have to start talking about whether those jobs can feed you and your family.  Minimum wage jobs can’t, now.

Even with a hike in the minimum to $10.10, spread out over three years, as Obama, congressional Democrats and, yes, organized labor propose, they can’t.

And yet those are the jobs the economy is creating now and will through 2022.

            So it’s time to stop thinking small and start thinking big when demanding a raise in the minimum wage.  The fast food workers have it right — $15 an hour and the right to organize.  Let’s follow their lead.