WASHINGTON—Whether from good will or simply politics, boosting the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour would lift the spirits and finances of millions of Americans such as Austraberta Rodriguez.
A janitor in Houston, Rodriguez, 63, works four hours a night, Monday through Friday, cleaning offices in a downtown high-rise for $5.15 an hour. After 10 years with the same company, she gets no medical benefits, sick days or holiday pay.
Rodriguez would like to work full time, but her employer has declined because it doesn't want to pay for the benefits. So she and the company are hoping Congress can put aside politics and pass a minimum-wage increase quickly. They think they've waited long enough.
"Even if it's only one, two or three extra dollars, I could do more with that," Rodriguez said through an interpreter. "$5.15 an hour is not sufficient to make ends meet."
The majority of Americans seem to agree. Recent surveys have found overwhelming public support for an increase. Opponents, however, argue that a higher minimum wage would cost jobs.
The Senate is expected to vote Friday on a Republican proposal to increase the hourly minimum wage to $5.85 on Jan. 1, $6.55 in June 2008 and $7.25 on June 1, 2009. But Democrats have vowed to fight the measure because Republicans in the House of Representatives passed it with provisions to cut inheritance taxes for the rich by $268 billion over 10 years.
Jerry Braxton, who lives in Atlanta and stocks grocery shelves for $5.25 an hour, said it was insulting that lawmakers had jeopardized the pay hike by trying to enrich the wealthy. "It's like they're saying, `What's in it for me? What's in it for my supporters?' I don't think they really care about poor people at all," he said.
Although he's surrounded by food all day, Braxton, 46, often goes hungry because he can't afford his own meals after he pays his weekly $125 rent at a nearby boardinghouse.
"I usually end up going around asking my neighbors if they have any leftovers," he said.
If Congress approves the wage hike, it'll be playing catch-up. Some 23 states and the District of Columbia have enacted or soon will enact hourly minimum-wage rates that top the current federal level.
Texas isn't one of those states. Rodriguez, unable to afford her own place, lives with her married daughter, her son-in-law and their three children. After taxes she takes home about $179 every two weeks, enough to help with rent, phone bills, food and utilities.
A member of the Service Employees International Union, which represents janitors nationwide, Rodriguez is part of a union committee that's negotiating for raises, better benefits and more hours for 5,300 janitors in the Houston area.
She can't remember the last time she got a raise, although Sept. 1, 1997, does ring a bell. That's when the minimum wage was bumped to its current level.
Since then, her hourly wage has lost roughly 26 percent of its buying power because of inflation. She'd have to make $6.51 an hour today to purchase what her $5.15 hourly wage could buy in 1997, according to Department of Labor estimates.
A full-time worker who earned the $2.90-an-hour minimum wage in 1979 earned enough to pull a family of three out of poverty. That family would fall $5,900 below the poverty threshold today because the minimum wage hasn't kept pace with inflation.
Roughly 2 million workers—about two-thirds of whom are women—earned the federal minimum wage or less in 2005, according to the Labor Department.
About 3 out of 4 workers who made $5.15 an hour or less last year worked in service occupations such as food preparation, the government reported.
Some 6.6 million workers who earn less than $7.25 an hour would get raises if the current minimum-wage proposal were approved, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan economic policy-research center.
Hundreds of the nation's leading economists have been calling for a minimum wage increase since 2004. The eight-year, 11-month drought without an adjustment is topped only by the nine-year, three-month period when the federal minimum wage remained at $3.35, from January 1981 to April 1990.
"Holding it constant for nearly 10 years just scandalizes me," said Stanley Black, the Lurcy professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Our (income) tax brackets change for inflation and our Social Security payments increase each year with the cost of living. Who says the lowest-paid workers don't deserve some inflation protection?"
Also, the income gap between the rich and poor is widening and the nation's work productivity has been growing steadily.
"At a time when the (labor) market itself is generating very high inequality, the one tool we have to deal with it, the minimum wage, has been completely ignored," said Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University. "We're in an economy where very little of the higher productivity is translating into higher wages for lower- and middle-income people, and we ought to do something about that."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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