Pattie Federico had to make an impossible choice last winter. Fix her aging furnace and stay warm, or put gas in and do routine maintenance on her nine-year-old car. She chose the car so she could keep her job, eventually scrape together enough to repair her furnace, and repeat the cycle again.
The Boston-area movie theater worker who earns minimum wage said, "living paycheck to paycheck would represent an improvement in my life."
As the gap between the rich and the rest of us grows, the bar for what constitutes a good life seems to be getting lower. It is inherently wrong that for Pattie and millions of other minimum-wage workers just being able to make ends meet would mean a better life. There was a time when hard work represented opportunity, not merely subsistence.
Pattie and about 20 other workers from across the country met with White House officials Tuesday in a special event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The act, signed into law in 1938, established basic workplace protections such as the national minimum wage, a standard 44-hour workweek (now 40 hours), and overtime pay among other things. Congress passed the law as the nation was trying to rebound from the Great Depression to lift more workers out of poverty.
The real value of the minimum wage in 2013 dollars reached its highest point in 1968. Because the wage doesn't keep pace with inflation and is at the discretion of policymakers, every time the issue of raising it comes up, business interests go into overdrive and lobby lawmakers to maintain the status quo.
Their argument is timeworn and pretty much identical to what it was in 1938 when corporations and their conservative backers in Congress claimed a wage floor would ruin their businesses.
Not Getting By
Time has shown us that raising the minimum wage does not destroy businesses and paying a living wage is good for workers and the economy. That's why Pattie and other workers who participated in today's White House event are part of a united movement to raise awareness of just how tough it is to get by on $7.25 an hour.
The crusade began last fall with Walmart workers striking over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and New York fast-food workers in November staging a one-day walkout. The fast-food and retail worker strikes have spread with more actions in Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Seattle and St. Louis.
The workers are risking their jobs and livelihood because they know their cause is just and they want a better life. Workers such as Tomecka Harris who, at eight months pregnant, picketed and went on strike in St. Louis on May 9 to advocate for a higher minimum wage. As a cashier at Captain D's, she cooks, cleans, and also has to eat at work because there's not enough food in her refrigerator at home.
Erin Breen, 27, attended the White House event. She's a server at a Baltimore restaurant and earns $3.63 an hour plus tips. Erin is a single mother raising her son Finley. For her, an increase in the minimum wage would provide her with the income to be more self-sufficient, she said.
Edgar Acosta, who spoke at the White House, is a husband, father, student and valet attendant who earns slightly more than the minimum wage. An increase in the minimum wage, he said, would allow him to better care for his family, including pay for healthcare his wife and infant daughter need.
Irasema Cavazos, 60, another member of the delegation is a home healthcare worker from San Antonio, Texas. After three years at her home healthcare agency, she earns $8.75 per hour.
"We don't want handouts, we know there is dignity in work," Irasema said. "We want to be compensated for our work. We want to work, raise a family. Pay us a living wage."
About 15 million people in the nation earn the minimum wage. Their average age is 28. There are millions more Patties, Tomeckas, Erins, Edgars and Irasemas.
Today's 75th anniversary of the minimum wage doesn't call for celebration. It calls for policymakers to take a look at the intent of the law and consider how, in our ever-changing economy, we can live up to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's simple ideal that people who work ought to be able to make a living from that work.
It's time to raise the minimum wage and to ensure all hardworking Americans are adequately and fairly compensated so no hardworking person has to choose between heating their home and having transportation to work.