Monday, July 23, 2007

Federal Minimum Wage to Rise on Tuesday

About 1.7 million people made $5.15 or less in 2006, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many workers, along with union advocates for low-wage workers, are celebrating the first increase in the federal minimum wage in a decade. Yet many acknowledge that raising it from $5.15 an hour to $5.85 will provide only meager help for some of the lowest paid workers. Arkansas and more than two dozen states already have minimum wages higher than the federal one.

"The reality for a minimum wage worker is that every penny makes a difference because low-wage workers make the choice between putting food on the table and paying for electricity or buying clothes for their children," said Beth Shulman, former vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. "Saying that, it's clear going up to $5.85 is not enough to really make sure that people really can afford the things that all families need," said Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans.

Minimum wage workers will get an additional 70-cent boost each summer for the next two years, ending in 2009 at $7.25 an hour. Even then when the full increase is enacted, minimum wage workers will be just scraping by. That comes to just above $15,000 yearly before taxes for a 52-week work year. Now, someone in such a job and earning $5.85 an hour would bring home $12,168 a year before taxes. The federal poverty level for singles is $10,210, couples is $13,690 and $17,170 for families of three.

Poverty and the minimum wage are becoming major issues in the Democratic presidential race. John Edwards and Barack Obama are emphasizing raising the minimum wage. Edwards, who said he wants to eliminate poverty within a generation, favors raising the minimum wage to $9.50. Obama is advocating a "living wage" that would go up as inflation rises and he has promised to eliminate the phrase "working poor."

It is shameful that anyone who works full time still ends up in poverty. Everyone who puts in an honest day's work should receive a fair day's pay. The Arkansas Legislature should adopt a new minimum wage law to step increases above the current $6.25, and it should tie future increases automatically to meet inflation. AFSCME Local 965 will be asking area legislators and legislative candidates their positions on this and other issues affecting working families.

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