Brittany Williamson is 24 and lives in Detroit, the poorest big city in the United States. Over the past three years, she has worked two—and sometimes three—jobs just to make ends meet, shuffling between Detroit-area McDonald’s franchises. That’s why, Williamson told the Detroit Free Press, she turned out to a Fight for 15 protest in October and was arrested for blocking Woodward Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
Williamson isn’t alone. Millions of people earn the minimum wage in their respective states—including 1.8 million who are paid at or below the federal minimum of $7.25—and thousands have turned out to protest their insufficient pay. Finally, that situation could be about to change.
On Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced that when the new Congress convenes in January, he will reintroduce his bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The current version of the legislation would gradually increase the minimum wage, until it reaches $15 an hour in 2024. While the bill almost certainly won’t make it past the Republican-controlled Senate, it signals the sort of difference progressives can make if they seize power in 2020.
Although right-wing critics of raising the federal minimum wage often point to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figure quoted above—1.8 million—as evidence that only around 4 percent of workers will be helped by a wage hike, this is misleading. The BLS statistic doesn’t take into account the people in states with a minimum wage above the federal standard. These residents of 29 states and Washington, D.C., represent more than half the country’s population and are left out of the 1.8 million figure.
Moreover, a vast number of people work for less than $15 an hour, even if they earn above minimum wage. According to Census Bureau data, 40.2 million hourly workers earned at or below $14.63 an hour in 2017. In 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, 20.6 million people earned less than $10.10 an hour but above minimum wage in their state. All of these workers would benefit from the wage bump Sanders’ bill would provide.
The bill would greatly benefit black and brown communities, as minimum wage workers are disproportionately people of color. These workers also tend to be paid less, on average. The median wage for black hourly workers is $12.90 and the median for Latino workers is $13.16, while the median for white workers is $14.89.
Women and people with lower levels of education will also disproportionately benefit. According to Pew, the “near minimum wage” workers who earn above their local minimum but below $10.10 are mostly women and 93 percent have no bachelor’s degree. Also, contrary to popular sentiment, these low-wage workers aren’t all teenagers on summer jobs—a majority are over 30 years old.
But Sanders’ bill goes beyond bumping the minimum wage. While a flat increase would no doubt make a huge difference, the proposed legislation also seeks to ensure future Congressional action isn’t needed on the minimum wage. After reaching $15, the minimum wage would increase as wages around the country grow, ensuring that hourly workers aren’t left behind.
Previous minimum wage bills haven’t included such automatic increases. According to Pew, if the amount minimum wage workers were paid had kept up with the value they produce from the peak in 1968 of (in 2016 dollars) $8.68, in 2017 it would have sat at $19.33. Indexing the minimum wage to other wage growth would allow workers to benefit as costs continue to rise.
Sanders’ bill also eliminates a common loophole that allows employers to pay some workers a pittance. Current minimum wage law mandates a minimum pay of $7.25 for hourly workers—unless those workers receive tips. Tipped workers can receive as little as $2.13 an hour, so long as they receive $30 each month in tips. Since a plurality of low-wage workers (18 percent of Pew’s “near minimum wage” workers) are concentrated in the food service industry, where tips are common, this loophole is commonly exploited.
Even worse, disabled workers can be paid $1 or less an hour, if employers deem they can’t do their job as well as workers who are not disabled. Sanders’ proposed legislation would gradually eliminate both loopholes, as well as scrap the “youth minimum wage,” which allows employers to pay less to new hires under 20 years of age for their first 90 days on the job.
The new bill isn’t flawless. In many parts of the country, $15 an hour isn’t enough. In fact, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, $15 hourly is enough to afford a two-bedroom rental in only six states and Puerto Rico. In an additional 27 states, between $15 and $20 is needed, while more than $20 an hour is needed in the remaining 17 states and Washington D.C.
However, these are issues that any federal-level bill would have difficulty addressing, since each state faces their own challenges when it comes to wages.
This legislation could help anchor a progressive agenda platform for the new class of left-leaning Democrats in Congress. Raising the minimum wage is a consistently popular idea: In 2016, Pew found 58 percent of people supported a $15 wage, while Quinnipiac found 54 percent support in 2017.
It’s also a policy that voters are familiar with. Seeing Democrats get on board with a minimum wage bump would show that they stand on the side of working people, drawing a clear line in the sand with Trump and members of the GOP who would rather get rid of the federal minimum wage altogether.
Every member of Congress should be forced to vote on whether they will pass a bill helping tens of millions of people better afford housing, food and healthcare. Sanders’ bill would do just that.