WASHINGTON -- On a recent afternoon, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez found himself getting a five-minute tutorial in paint-mixing at an Ace Hardware store in downtown Washington, D.C. The crash course wasn't for any personal home-improvement purposes. Now seven months into his post, Perez is playing the role of ambassador for a raise to the federal minimum wage, and that means making campaign-style stops in the low-wage sectors of the U.S. economy.
"How did I do?" Perez asked his tutor, Christina Amaya, as he pulled a quart of purple paint out of the mixer.
Amaya earns $13 per hour as an associate at the store, which is owned by A Few Cool Hardware Stores, a Washington-area chain of Ace shops. Her pay is nearly $5 above the current D.C. minimum wage and $6 above the federal, which is how Amaya found herself in a Labor Department photo-op with the labor secretary in front of local television crews. The hardware store chain starts all of its non-student employees out at at least $10 per hour.
After complimenting Perez's mixing skills, Amaya saw the secretary off to the key-copying station. After that, he'd be cutting plexiglass in the back room, then signing up for an Ace rewards card before grabbing a sandwich at Taylor Gourmet around the corner.
Over his lunch, Perez said Amaya was proof that some businesses in the retail and service industries choose to pay well above the legal minimum even if they can get away with paying less. Such employers have nothing to worry about in the proposed minimum wage hike, Perez argued, and they're already reaping some of the benefits that come with a higher-paid workforce.
"For them it doesn't have an effect because they've already been paying a fair wage," Perez said. "If you pay someone a fair wage, you engender loyalty. And when you engender loyalty, people stick around and you don't have turnover. When everyone pays a decent wage people have more money in their pocket."
While think-tankers and members of Congress debate the merits of such a raise, the labor secretary has been playing the role of public advocate, meeting with workers, business owners and trade groups to discuss the proposal from congressional Democrats to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and peg it to inflation. Obama has made the proposal a pillar of his agenda this year, arguing at length in his recent State of the Union address that Congress needs to "give America a raise."
Perez said he hasn't just been preaching in front of the choir at places like Costco, a company on record in support of the increase, or the D.C. hardware store, which could be expected to pay higher wages than a similar store in, say, rural Kentucky. His meetings have included stakeholders who aren't exactly progressive boosters of the measure, such as the National Restaurant Association, which generally opposes minimum wage increases, particularly for restaurant servers. The restaurant lobby has been successful at keeping the tipped minimum wage frozen at $2.13 before tips for roughly 20 years, and it's still resisting any such increase.
"I've made it a point to meet with everyone, because I don't want to get a skewed perspective that just reinforces my own thinking," he said. "I want it to be informed by people who are directly affected by it."
Perez said he doesn't buy the argument that fast-food employers couldn't stay afloat paying $10.10 per hour.
"I find it a remarkable notion that McDonald's can't afford to pay an increase in the minimum wage but In-N-Out Burger can," said Perez, alluding to the West Coast burger chain known to pay above-average wages for the industry. "That doesn't make sense. They [In-N-Out Burger] do it for same reason -- it's about reducing attrition and having a more effective workforce."
Perez said many of the business arguments against the raise remind him of local smoking bans. The doomsday predictions never come to pass, he said.
"I remember when I was in local government," Perez said. "I was hearing this was going to be the end of the world as we know it. They were coming to see me and they were very sincere. I considered it. We passed it, and their businesses are thriving."
Selling the American public on a minimum wage raise might be one of Perez's easier jobs. In poll after poll, the minimum wage fares extremely well, generally with well over half of respondents saying they support a hike, often across party lines. According to a recent HuffPost YouGov poll, raising the minimum wage has more fans than capitalism itself, with 62 percent approving of congressional Democrats' minimum wage bill.
Of course, the support for the measure is less broad on Capitol Hill. It isn't clear yet whether Senate Democrats will have the required 60 votes to block a filibuster when the bill is expected to hit the floor in March, and House Republicans have showed little interest in passing a bill they've panned as a job killer in a tepid recovery.
While Congress moves slowly, states and municipalities around the country have been raising the minimum wage on their own. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages higher than the federal level, and 10 states have tied their wage floors to an inflation index so that they rise with the cost of living each year. In November, voters in SeaTac, Wash., passed a $15 minimum wage for certain service workers, which is more than double the federal level. Given the popularity of such proposals, Democrats are hoping to put minimum wage measures on ballots this November to help drive voter turnout.
Perez said that blocking a raise to the federal minimum wage for a prolonged period could be dangerous for Republicans and businesses, potentially leading to much larger jumps at the state and local levels, a la SeaTac. In the end, those new minimum wages could make $10.10 look like a bargain, he argued.
"This started out as a brush fire, it turned into a bit of a prairie fire, and I think it's going to become a minimum wage wildfire now," Perez said. "It's spreading across the country, and I welcome that."