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$15, Take a Bow. $20 in Our Sights!

Workers are celebrating minimum-wage increases around the country, but the new frontier is already creeping toward $20.

Fight for 15 Chicago

The New Year blew in with higher wages for workers in dozens of jurisdictions across the country. Twenty-five states and 60 localities will raise their minimum wages in 2024. What is clear from even a cursory scan of these increases is that while a $15 minimum wage is the floor, many localities and some states have already passed wage increases that are higher than what the Fight for $15 movement coalesced around more than a decade ago. A number have landed on a $17 minimum wage for some or all employees, an encouraging development in the ongoing struggle to establish living wages nationwide.

Multiple California municipalities will pay $17 per hour or more by the end of the calendar year, along with Denver, Seattle, and two other Washington cities, SeaTac and Tukwila. In New Jersey, long-term care workers will see a boost to $18.13. One striking fact that stands out in the National Employment Law Project’s 2023 analysis of minimum-wage trends is that many worker advocates now see $15 as the floor and $20 as the new frontier. Most Americans work for midsized and larger American companies—and even some “not typically pro-worker companies” have already come around to paying employees a $15 wage. Since 2020, Best Buy, Costco, and Labcorp increased hourly pay to $15 or more. A few others—Charter Communications, Chobani, and Barclays—pay hourly rates of $20 and up.

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The $20 debate is under way in Massachusetts, with metro Boston driving the debate over the prospect of setting a $20 minimum wage by 2027, where the minimum is $15 now. Some state lawmakers and groups supporting an increase argue that inflation has eaten away at any gains that the current wage level once provided.

Massachusetts has a persistent unaffordability dynamic in play. Child care is more expensive than a state-college education. The state has some of the highest annual child care costs for toddlers at $19,961, representing more than 50 percent of the median single mother’s income, and close to 15 percent for a married couple with children. In-state tuition at University of Massachusetts Amherst is $17,364 for the current academic year.

Boston’s journey to the top of the charts of high-cost cities puts it in a company familiar to major metro denizens. The monthly median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Boston is $2,860, the third-highest in the country behind San Francisco and New York. Bostonians have seen the fifth-highest increase in food prices in the country.

Only a few places see those kinds of astronomical price tags, of course, but every region of the country is seeing its own distinct version of the failure of wages to keep up with the basics—like food—which makes the daily grind that much more distressing. American consumers continue to spend more on food, whose costs have increased more than 11 percent from 2021 to 2022 according to Agriculture Department data, with 2022 seeing the speediest hikes in prices since 1979. Food price hikes have been highest in the Northeast; the Dakotas, Montana, and Iowa also saw sharp increases. Among cities, Philadelphia ranks first for the steepest jumps, followed by Baltimore, Albany, and Syracuse.

Where wages set by employers aren’t moving fast enough, the job is falling to voters to make up the difference through ballot measures. Alaska, California, Ohio, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Missouri currently have minimum-wage ballot campaigns under way.

“When you see the failures of either the federal government or the state government to meet the needs of people,” says Richard von Glahn, political director for Missouri Jobs with Justice, an advocacy group leading the minimum wage/sick leave initiative campaign, “people are going to try to make democracy work for them in another way.”

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The campaign is collecting signatures for a graduated minimum-wage increase to $15 by 2026, along with an earned sick leave provision that would give workers one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. So far, the campaign has collected more than 180,000 signatures, and von Glahn estimates that it will finish up by the early-May submission deadline with about 200,000. (A citizen-initiated measure needs 115,000 from certain geographic areas to appear on the ballot.) Voters have approved two minimum-wage hikes over the past 18 years, one in 2006 linked to a cost-of-living adjustment, which passed with 75 percent of the vote, and a second in 2018 that increased wages to $12 by 2023, which passed with 62 percent of the vote.

“The status quo is too low to begin with,” says von Glahn. “The reality is the current minimum wage of $12.30 an hour is $25,000 a year for a full-time worker, and you can’t survive on that in Missouri.”

On January 1, Missouri increased its minimum wage to $12.30. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, an hourly living wage for a single Missourian is $15.77. St. Louis and Kansas City each tried to increase minimum-wage rates in 2015, but Republican state lawmakers preempted the Democratic cities’ proposals.

Missouri politicians understand, in some cases, that low minimum wages present serious retention problems. Two years ago, state lawmakers raised the minimum wage for state employees to $15 per hour after Gov. Mike Parson lamented high turnover and vacancy rates in the state government workforce, one of Missouri’s largest. In 2023, those workers received a more than 8 percent cost-of-living increase.

The federal minimum wage refuses to budge, another bullet point on the long list of problems that Congress has stepped away from. Republicans seem to be impervious to the idea that $7.25 per hour is nowhere near enough money for one person to support themselves, much less a family.

Thwarted in his efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 in 2021 by Senate Republicans whose opposition kept the measure from winning a 60-vote supermajority, President Biden pivoted to an executive order raising it for federal contractors’ employees, only to have a federal judge in Texas block the order in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The Labor Department has appealed.

Members of Congress have dueling plans certain to go nowhere fast. Democrats have introduced a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $17 by 2028, which is countered by a Senate Republican plan that would increase the wage to $11 over four years.

Prospect senior editor and award-winning journalist Gabrielle Gurley writes and edits work on states and cities, transportation and infrastructure, civil rights, and climate. Follow @gurleygg

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