WASHINGTON -- Linda Branch, a 50-year-old personal care worker in Milwaukee, works 20 hours a week making $11 an hour, or around $400 every two weeks. That's barely enough to make her rent, she told the state's Department of Workforce Development in a recent filing. She added that she recently had to borrow money to keep her electricity running, and that she could not afford to send her grandson, whom she raises, to his recent homecoming dance.
"I was not providing him with a proper childhood because I cannot afford to," Branch said in her statement.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Branch said she has been working since she was 14 and that the only government help she receives is rent assistance. "I am 50 years old now. I should not be penny-pinching," she said.
Branch is one of 100 workers in Wisconsin that filed a joint complaint with the state's Department of Workforce Development last month, saying they earned less than the living wage mandated by Wisconsin law. Thousands of workers in Wisconsin make around or just above the minimum wage in the state: $7.25 an hour, the same as the federal standard. But that wage, the workers say, is not enough to live on.
The complaint cited state laws that say any wage paid by a Wisconsin employer must be a living wage that allows the employee to maintain their welfare, and that such a wage must "be adequate to permit any employee to maintain herself or himself in minimum comfort, decency, physical and moral well-being."
The effort was organized by Wisconsin Jobs Now, a nonprofit organization, and the Wisconsin branch of the Working Families Party. The advocates are seeking to make the minimum wage an important issue in Wisconsin's upcoming gubernatorial election. Incumbent Gov. Scott Walker (R) has already angered the state's historically powerful labor unions by revoking most public unions' right to collective bargaining in 2011.
The workers heard back from the state earlier this week: "The Department has determined that there is no reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to the complainants are not a living wage," the Department of Workforce Development said in a letter obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Branch was outraged. "That's a bunch of bull," she told The Huffington Post. "How can you live on $7.25 when I'm making $11 an hour and I can't?"
The Department of Workforce Development told The Huffington Post it had no comment beyond its initial statement.
Walker has said that raising the minimum wage was "part of a job-killing agenda." Earlier this year, he justified his opposition to a higher minimum wage by saying, "Jobs that involve the minimum wage are overwhelmingly jobs for young people starting out in the workforce."
PolitiFact Wisconsin rated Walker's claim false, finding that no more than 55 percent of minimum wage jobs nationally are held by teenagers and young adults. A recent think tank report found that in 2013, 1 in 4 Wisconsin workers earned around or less than the "poverty wage" -- $11.36 an hour, the amount required to keep a family of four out of poverty with full-time work. The median age of a poverty wage worker in Wisconsin is 30 years old, the report found.
Walker's opponent, Democrat Mary Burke, has championed a higher minimum wage.
Walker's opponents note that his failure to raise the wage has not led to job growth in Wisconsin. Lisa Lucas of Wisconsin Jobs Now pointed to Walker's infamous promise to create 250,000 jobs during his first term.
"Walker promised us a quarter of a million jobs when he took office and that hasn’t happened, so clearly leaving the minimum wage where it is hasn’t helped job growth," Lucas told The Huffington Post.
Studies from national and Wisconsin-based think tanks have suggested that a higher minimum wage would not undermine job growth. Moreover, states that have raised their minimum wages have seen faster job growth than those that have kept their wages constant.
Yet the release from the Department of Workforce Development dismissing the complaint cited analyses suggesting that raising the wage would, in fact, suppress hiring.
Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for Walker, said when the complaint was filed that the governor's focus was on job creation, not on raising current wages. "He is focused on finding ways to help employers create jobs that pay far more than the minimum wage or any other proposed minimum," she said at the time.
Lucas said that while the workers did not expect the governor to change his stance immediately, they were upset by the lack of clarity in the state's investigation of their complaint. What's "especially ridiculous," she added, is the agency's argument that the workers appear to make a living wage in part because they receive public assistance.
"If Governor Walker thinks anyone can really live on $7.25 he is out of his mind," said Jon Green, the national deputy director for Working Families. "This decision wasn't guided by any sense or reason or fairness, but by political payback to Walker's corporate contributors."
The workers are hoping to help Walker understand who is affected by his decision not to raise the wage -- and to force him to explain his position as he fights for re-election.
"There's a lot of people out here in the working field doing what Governor Walker wants us to do: he says he wants us to be out here working," said Branch, who identified herself as a supporter of Burke. "I was hoping that Mr. Walker would see [the complaints] and take account of these workers out here ... he just needs to take a walk in my shoes."
Here are the experiences of some other Wisconsin workers that Walker's state agency said are making a 'living wage,' drawn from copies of the complaints provided to The Huffington Post by the national Working Families organization.
Denise Merchant: Merchant explained to the state that she makes $7.25 per hour as a line food server. She said she is lucky to be on her husband's health insurance, but she still does not have enough money to regularly purchase the test strips she needs as a diabetes patient, or to "really take care of" her two grandchildren. "My doctor told me that I am to check my blood twice a day," Merchant wrote in her complaint. "It's been a month since I last tested my blood. This is not good for my health. But it's one thing that I feel I need to put off in order that the other bills are paid."
Roman Fletcher: Fletcher said he makes $7.50 per hour as a fast-food worker and lives in his car. He donated plasma to try to make extra money, he explained -- but then his poor nutrition meant his protein levels were too low for him to do so. "A living wage means you can afford housing and food. I make $7.50 an hour, work 40 hours a week and have to live in my car just so I can eat," Fletcher wrote. "$7.50 is not a living wage."
Julia Garcia: Garcia wrote in her complaint that she makes $8.50 per hour as a retail worker. As a single mother of three, Garcia said, she receives food stamps but still often finds herself unable to buy enough food for her family. She wrote that she and her children live in a damaged trailer with poor heating whose windows leak when it rains. "I work long hours starting at 4 am every day but I still can’t meet my needs," Garcia wrote.