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True Stories of the Minimum Wage

Every day she wonders, do I have enough money for gas? Will my car hold up just a little bit longer before I have to pay for repairs? Pattie Federico -- and 15 million workers just like her -- deserve a raise.
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Pattie Federico earns just above the minimum wage working at a local movie theater. And she needs every penny. Like many Americans, she struggles to make ends meet, but Pattie feels like she is falling even further behind. With her current wages, getting to the point where she could scrape by paycheck-to-paycheck would be an improvement. Every day she wonders, do I have enough money for gas? Will my car hold up just a little bit longer before I have to pay for repairs? Pattie -- and 15 million workers just like her -- deserve a raise.

President Obama agrees. He wants to reward an honest day's work with a fair day's pay by raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour and indexing it to the cost-of-living by 2015. The president believes that nobody working full time all year should have to live in poverty.

Like Pattie, workers earning at or near the minimum wage are putting in as many hours as their job allows, and in some cases they're holding down more than one. These workers are moms and dads, breadwinners and heads of household, taking care of ailing relatives, or supporting children with aspirations to attend college and find rewarding careers. They're using their hard-earned wages to put food on the table, pay the gas bill, fill prescriptions and make tuition payments. But to do so, they face wrenching tradeoffs every day.

For Jose Castro, who works in housekeeping in Orlando, that tradeoff is between taking care of his family and his own physical well-being. He wants to provide medicine and food for his children, and he wants to help pay for at least some of his son's college studies, but he knows that he would need to work two or three jobs at his current wage to do that. For him, a raise in the minimum wage means protecting himself from the physical toll that a second shift of grueling housekeeping work would take on his body.

I've heard many stories like Pattie's and Jose's in recent weeks during visits to Boston, Cleveland, Orlando and Philadelphia. No one I've spoken to is looking for charity or handouts. Nor are they just marginally attached to the workforce -- teenagers or part-time workers with other means of support. Eighty percent of workers who would benefit from the president's proposal are 20 years of age or older. And the wages earned by the workers who would benefit from this plan make up 46 percent of their households' income. That means that for millions of Americans, the minimum wage is nothing short of their lifeblood. This is not about a few extra dollars; if you talk to these workers like I have, you'll realize very quickly that there is nothing "extra" about it. This is about the fulfillment of the basic bargain that hard work will be rewarded with a fair wage.

This month marks the U.S. Department of Labor's 100th anniversary. Among many other responsibilities, this department enforces the worker protection laws that expand and secure America's middle class, including the nation's minimum wage law: the Fair Labor Standards Act. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Except perhaps for the Social Security Act, it is the most far-reaching, far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted here or in any other country."

Today, as it was when Congress first created a national minimum wage, we are emerging from a period of enormous economic challenge. Like FDR before him, President Obama is calling on us to ensure that the people who drive our kids to school; serve our food; provide care to our parents, young children and people with disabilities; or labor at other important jobs earn enough to support their families and live a decent life. We also know that when a worker doesn't have to choose between food, medicine and warm clothing for her children -- like Jessica Nunez in Philadelphia -- that means more is spent in local groceries, pharmacies or clothing retailers. That's good for small businesses and our economy as a whole.

Deshanne Collins-Staggers said it better than I ever could. She is currently living with her family in a Cleveland-area homeless shelter. She does not work, but her husband is a general laborer working at the minimum wage; however, even at that wage, pay is deducted for transportation and other expenses. "It doesn't take rocket science to say that a family needs a living wage to make it," Deshanne says. "It doesn't take all of these politics to do what is right. It just takes the mindset of the people who are sitting in Washington to change, to say I will do unto my neighbor as I want done unto me."

It's time we give Pattie, Jose, Jessica and Deshanne's husband the raise they need and deserve.

For another take on the minimum wage, read this great post from two of my Labor Department colleagues. Please join us in this conversation. Share your comments here or on Twitter using the hashtag #MWraise.

Seth D. Harris is the acting Secretary of Labor.

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