THE BLOG

Increasing and Indexing the Minimum Wage: Taking a Real Stand for Workers' Rights

01/25/2013 10:29 am ET | Updated Mar 27, 2013

January has been a good-news, bad-news month as far as low-wage workers go.

The good news: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75.

The bad news: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to raise the minimum wage to only $8.75.

Anyone who has ever worked knows that is not enough.

In the time I've spent working to improve wages and conditions for the working poor and middle class, I have come across hundreds upon hundreds of examples of why $8.75 is too low -- especially without tying it to the inflation index.

Here are some of them -- real people, real stories -- folks trying to support themselves and their families on a minimum wage that's been far too low for far too long.

Hector Guzman makes minimum wage working roughly 60 hours a week, for a company that processes and packs school lunches. He says he receives no overtime pay and the company does not provide employer-sponsored health care. Hector works hard to support his family, and he believes that an increase in the minimum wage is necessary to help people make ends meet.

Saveedra Jantuah is 23, and works at the Burger King on 34th Street. After two years, she makes $7.30 an hour -- a nickel above the minimum wage. That is not enough to support her 3-year-old son, which is why she lives apart from him. Saveedra lives with family in Harlem, but her mom and son live in the Bronx. She was among the hundreds of New Yorkers who staged a one-day strike at fast food restaurants across the city on Nov. 29 as part of a low-wage worker organizing campaign to call attention to their plight and to make the case for joining a union. "For me, [this organizing] means I could have my own place with my son," she told reporters. "I could be in one household, survive, pay rent, put things on the table. I don't want to live a $7.25 life."

Angel Olmedo has lived in New York for 12 years. For the last two years, he has worked in a restaurant earning the minimum wage. He says he used to earn a higher salary, but was fired after standing up for his rights. When he earned a higher salary he could save a little money, with the hopes of owning a house one day. Now he has to share a room and work at a restaurant where he can eat on the job in order to survive. The cost of his rent, telephone and transportation is always going up, but his wages are not. As an immigrant worker earning the minimum wage, Angel pays his fair share of taxes and does not understand why corporations with billions of dollars in profits are not paying their fair share.

Rocio Bravo is a single mother who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. She supports her two children by working at Popeye's. She makes $8.50 an hour, works 35 or 40 hours a week, and takes home a little more than $1,000 a month. She says she pays $400 in rent for a single room because she can't afford an apartment for herself and her two children. Her story highlights the fact that even if the minimum wage goes up to $8.75 in New York, working families will still be struggling to get by. As a single mom in a low-wage job, Rocio depends on programs and services paid for by tax dollars, including her own, but she has seen these programs and services cut again and again.

That's the reality.

It also is unrealistic to think that a worker anywhere in New York can live on $8.75, which comes out to $18,200 year. People opposed to raising the minimum claim that a higher minimum wage will result in fewer jobs or cause businesses to relocate to neighboring states. That has not been the case in Washington, Oregon and states that have hiked the minimum wage. The reality is that raising the minimum wage would give people more money to spend, thereby giving a boost to the economy. Ten other states have indexing, but, still, $8.75 would be too low without it.

U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9.80 -- with yearly increases for inflation. While we believe that this is still not high enough, it is a much better proposal than what is currently on the table in New York.

According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, income for the top 1 percent of New Yorkers has risen more than 500 percent since 1980, while income has plummeted some 13 percent for the bottom 50 percent of households. Income for the top 1 percent isn't the only thing that's increased since the '80s -- food costs have increased by 136 percent, transportation has gone up nearly 118 percent, and rent has increased by a whopping 211 percent. Sadly, wages have not kept pace, but a minimum wage increase to about $10 an hour -- with indexing -- will close that gap a bit. And it would make it a lot easier for low-income folks to pay their rent, put food on the table and buy the barest of necessities for their families.

So let's raise the minimum wage, but we also have to index it to inflation -- a practice, that if enacted in the 1970s, would have resulted in a minimum wage of roughly $10.70 an hour.

The need for reasonable wages that allow workers to live and support families in New York is real. These workers aren't asking to get rich, they just want to be able to work full-time and know that they can pay their bills, invest in their local communities, and even save some money for future expenses. They aren't numbers or statistics, they are real people with real needs.

Just ask Hector, Saveedra, Angel or Rocio.