Five million Americans earn the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. They can't count on yearly pay raises no matter how high inflation rises. They take home the same pay no matter how well they perform. Unless Congress acts, their pay will remain unchanged for the eighth year in a row. America's poorest workers deserve better. They deserve a raise.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is proposing a 40-cent raise every year for the next three years. The increases would push the minimum wage to $4.55 an hour by 1991. That would be high enough to make up for losses due to inflation since the last raise took effect on Jan. 1, 1981.
Congress has been working on the legislation for months. The Senate has been debating Kennedy's bill all week. Finally, Senate Democrats hope to force a vote as early as Friday or, at the latest, sometime next week.
The Reagan Administration and many Republicans oppose any increase in the minimum wage on grounds that a raise would cost jobs, force prices up and hurt--rather than help--the working poor. An independent Minimum Wage Study Commission, required by the legislation that phased in the current rate, found that it wasn't clear whether such an increase reduces adult unemployment. If it does, according to the 1981 report, the loss may be so tiny in comparison to the nation's total adult unemployment that it cannot be measured with precision. A higher wage, however, can lead to higher unemployment--not because of a substantial loss of jobs but because more people, including part-time employees, are looking for full-time jobs. More people want to work at the higher rate.
Vice President George Bush, the GOP presidential nominee, supports a modest increase without mentioning a specific figure. His support is tied, however, to a controversial subminimum wage, which would allow employers to pay workers 80% of the minimum rate during their first 90 days on a job. That so-called training rate, proposed by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), would provide no formal training while giving employers an incentive to get rid of workers every three months.
To counter this proposal, Kennedy would expand a rarely used student subminimum rate to allow employers to pay full-time high-school and college students 85% of the minimum wage for working no more than 20 hours a week. The student wage, according to the Kennedy rationale, would encourage students to stay in school.
While the Senate debates, the House waits. In March the House Education and Labor Committee approved a bill, pushed by Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles), to increase the minimum wage to $5.05 an hour over four years. A proposal to index yearly raises at 50% of the average private wage was dropped, with little chance of passage. No further action is expected in the House until the Senate takes the lead.
If the Senate approves a fair minimum-wage increase, the House is likely to follow suit. The congressional action would force President Reagan to weigh his decision on a raise for poor workers with how it would play on Election Day.
Since 1981 the minimum wage has lost 30% of its purchasing power as the cost of housing, groceries, school clothes and just about everything else has risen. Since 1981 a salary based on the minimum wage has added up to less than $7,000 a year, which is below the poverty level for a family of three and worth less than welfare checks and other benefits in larger households.
Fifteen million Americans now make less than the proposed minimum wage of $4.55 an hour, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. Their paychecks should not be held hostage to politics. They need--and deserve--a raise.