No Year-End Bonus From Congress For Minimum Wage Workers

3 years ago

The House of Representatives passed the two-year Ryan/Murray budget December 12, with the minimum wage increase apparently off the table. Dems had advocated raising the wage from $7.25 an hour. (The Senate votes next week.)

An ugly reality beyond the budget battles is that many people – with families – struggle to make it on low wages. And it isn’t getting better. Yet the idea that the minimum wage is not enough to live on often sparks a family brouhaha at the holiday dinner table, much less on Capitol Hill.

When jobs are scarce, unemployment insurance limited, and minimum wage not stretching far enough, how can the average woman fight back?

The Great Recession handed me a calling card I wasn’t expecting. Five years ago, I was in a lucrative six-figure job with a global company, and enjoyed rich expense account, a company car, and a health insurance plan with no co-pays for health, dental and vision.

Because I had a spouse with a decent job, I survived well and even changed career direction. Now I make about 10% of what I made prior to 2009. No sympathy needed here, however, because I had a partner who picked up the slack.  Of course, my story isn’t the reality of most Americans.

New York City rally to raise the minimum wage, October 24, 2013, Image Credit: The All-Nite Images, via Flickr

What about the single woman who lost a good job?

For those who lost jobs in the Great Recession, the rebound to a new job was fraught with peril, intense competition, ageism and sexism, and companies expecting more for less. 

Could a single woman with my same job have afforded the COBRA health insurance? My COBRA plan was about $1200 a month. The day I was eligible, I went onto my husband’s plan through his job, adding $300 to the cost.

What about her mortgage or rent? We were at the tail-end of a 15-year mortgage, with two incomes  before I lost my job. With less than a year left on our mortgage, we easily paid it off. Without help, a single woman could have easily lost her house. When looking for a job, the last thing you want is a bad credit score as many employers now check finances. For some, its an endless cycle of horror.

And unemployment? In my state, she would have received $315 a month in 2009. That doesn’t go very far, especially in the face of a mortgage and thousand-dollar-a-month health premiums.

My imaginary friend had to buy or lease a car and obtain insurance, when the company car was returned to the company within 7 days. I didn’t – we had two in addition to my company car.

Millions of other Americans don’t have spouses with  good jobs, or an extra Honda Accord in the driveway. In my town, a large appliance manufacturer that provided good jobs for decades moved to Mexico and left hundreds without work. We are particularly aware of it at the holidays when local papers run the neediest cases and the store bell-ringers call our attention to the poverty in our own community.

While our imaginary single woman was a high income earner, she may or may not have gotten a new job. If she’s having difficulty, imagine the single woman with children, no education or advanced training, and a history of unskilled low wage jobs.

The Alliance for a Just Society published its annual Job Gaps study highlighting the impact of the Great Recession, as well as what’s happening to workers in our economy. The study considered $15 an hour and below low income wages.

Here’s a few statistics from the study that will curl your hair:

  • For every projected job opening above $15 an hour in 2012, there were seven job seekers.
  • There were 17.9 million more job seekers than jobs that pay above $15 an hour according to the study in 2012.
  • Jobs that paid below $15 an hour increased almost three percentage points from 2009 to 2012, with 51.4 million low wage jobs in 2012.

The first statistic really gets me, because it’s so discouraging to anyone really wanting to work. There is always competition, but you start out off the field, not even up to home plate.

What about making it in the Good Old Days?

Could one live a substantial life on low wages in the Good Old Days?

My father was a high school teacher making around 40K when he retired in 1988. My parents built a modest new home, took us on annual vacations, saved for college and paid into retirement. My brother and I had bicycles and a swing set, and both graduated from good public universities with no student debt. Is that possible today on one modest income? I don’t think so.

My husband started working in high school as a newspaper reporter, when the minimum wage was $2.10 an hour. He delayed college for a year, saving his money.

He graduated in 1981 with no student loan debt. His reporting money, cobbled with student jobs, paid for housing, tuition and expenses. Is that possible today? I don’t think so. Our son’s summer minimum wage job at Subway – one he was lucky to get – barely paid enough to cover several tuition hours, let alone a semester or a year. My husband’s wages paid for four years.

As the Alliance for a Just Society Job Gap reported, the economy is recovering, but the percentage of American workers in the job force has reached a 25-year low.

Does that mean our population is decreasing?

No. It means there are more folks who have given up, and are sitting at home watching “The Voice” on network television, because they can no longer afford cable.

Here are the gritty numbers that make up the bottom line. “Between the official end of the recession and 2012, we find the total number of jobs in categories in which the median wage is less than $15 an hour increased by more than 3.6 million, while those jobs paying $15 an hour or more decrease by 4 million.”

A Forbes magazine contributor argues for each dollar increase in wages, an employee must bring an additional dollar in value to the business owner.

I take his point, but also recognize it is much more complicated than that. So, what’s the answer in an economy fraught with every evil thing?

Will it Play in Peapack?

Atlantic Cities suggested this week that there’s a case for a locally-based minimum wage, and the article cited median hourly earnings for various metropolitian areas. For example, the District of Columbia and surrounding areas had median hourly earnings of $31.43, while Louisville, Kentucky was $18.82. As the mother of an adult child living in DC, I can attest to the differences in cost of living from the Ohio River Valley.

Our son – who shares an apartment with two others – pays in monthly rent three times what our mortgage was for a typical suburban home.

If you are from New Jersey, congratulations on passing an increase in the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour tied in with automatic increases. It’s a start – but can you honestly live in Morristown or even Camden on $8.25 an hour?

Median wages differ across the country, based on all kinds of factors from transportation to energy.

Why can’t a new minimum wage be phased in by state or area, considering those factors? Perhaps an easy solution is raising it in increments, which give employers some space.

President Barack Obama continues to speak out on inequality and hints at a change in the minimum wage almost daily. Americans are on board with an incremental raise; a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said 63% of Americans surveyed supported a raise to $10.10.

Will our often ham-handed Congress eventually listen, and give millions of Americans the holiday gift they truly want in their stockings, a job with decent wages? From its most recent vote, it appears for now all workers are getting is a lump of coal.

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