Why Corporate America Is Finally Raising Wages

McDonald's Restaurant Sign by Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia on YouTube
McDonald's Restaurant Sign by Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia on YouTube

Some of the country’s biggest employers are finally raising wages amid mounting pressure from protesters and a hardier job market.

McDonald’s on Wednesday became the latest major company to give workers -- albeit a fraction of its total workforce -- a pay bump that will lift average hourly pay to $9.90 from $9.01. The move, which will go into effect on July 1, follows a similar change made in February by Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer.

What, after years of stagnant wage growth for low-paid workers, is causing corporations to shell out more to their staff?

For some companies, the pay raise has been compelled by a sense of ethical leadership.

Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini raised the minimum wage at the health insurance company to $16 per hour after reading French economist Thomas Piketty’s bestseller Capital In The Twenty-First Century, which warns of the increasingly wide gap between rich and poor.

Other firms have been motivated by the desire to maintain market share.

“We’ve known for a really long time that if you look like a good corporate citizen, that’s good for sales,” Bob Keener, spokesman for the nonprofit Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, told The Huffington Post. “If you make a big public announcement about how you’re going to raise wages, you look like a good corporate citizen, and that’s going to increase your sales.”

Competition is also driving wages up. Call it a wage-hike domino effect. As the U.S. economy continues to add jobs, even retailers who claim to keep prices low in part by minimizing payroll expenses must increase how much they pay their workers to avoid losing them.

Since apparel giant Gap Inc. raised its minimum wage to $9 per hour last year, the company has seen a major influx in applicants, The Washington Post reported.

“When other large, low-wage employers boost their wages, McDonald’s has to be concerned about its employees moving to another employer where they can get another buck per hour,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the nonprofit National Employment Law Project. “There is undoubtedly some tightening in the labor market at the low end that is having an effect on wages.”

Plus, higher wages are good for business. Sales at McDonald’s and Walmart have languished over the past year, and boosting wages could actually be part of a strategy to help turn things around.

For every extra $1 a company spends each month in payroll, it could get back anywhere from $4 to $28 in monthly sales, according to a 2007 study by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and elsewhere.

Companies are also facing intense pressure from protesters to pay a living wage. Workers united under such groups as the "Fight for 15," which advocates for a $15 minimum wage, have led rallies in cities across the world, including a major gathering outside McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, last May. Fight for 15 is also planning a series of strikes for later this month.

Protests for higher pay are gaining steam. This week, Seattle began the process of raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour. Los Angeles is considering bumping the minimum wage for the city’s hotel workers to $15.37 -- making it the highest in the country.

While both McDonald’s and Walmart aim for a $10 average wage by next year, that is still $5 below the wage that protesters are demanding. Critics worry that these incremental pay boosts could be an attempt to undercut a movement that is gaining serious clout.

“This is a PR and a political move meant to knock the wind out of this growing and increasingly militant movement,” Peter Dreier, a professor of urban policy at Occidental College, told HuffPost. “The companies are now competing with each other not to look like they’re the worst employer in the world.”