A $15-per-hour minimum wage cannot be included in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill proposed by Congressional Democrats. So ruled the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth McDonough, on Feb. 25. This unelected official called it “irrelevant to budget legislation.”
This edict is a brutal blow to millions of struggling workers.
Nevertheless, the House of Representatives passed the bill 219 to 212 on Feb. 27 with the minimum wage increase intact. It will now move to the Senate — but most likely without the hourly pay raise, because of the parliamentarian’s ruling.
All Republicans in the House and Senate, plus two conservative Democratic senators, oppose this wage hike. So, despite the Democratic Party wielding a majority in the Senate, it might not have passed there, even if it were included in the relief bill. Behind the scenes are powerful corporate moguls and Wall Street financiers who are vehemently opposed to this minimum wage increase.
There are procedural means to circumvent or override the parliamentarian’s ruling, which have been used in the past by Democratic and Republican administrations, but the Biden White House has apparently decided to abide by McDonough’s decision and not challenge it. “He respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. (CNN, Feb. 25)
Sen. Bernie Sanders and other Congress members proposed a Plan B: to tax corporations that don’t pay their workers at least $15 per hour. But top Democrats put the kibosh on this idea, reported the Feb. 28 Washington Post. This failure to act extends an emergency for low-wage workers!
Disaster for millions
Two-thirds of workers report they have been living paycheck to paycheck since COVID-19 hit U.S. shores. Nearly half were in that predicament even prior to the pandemic. This is due to extremely low wages, combined with the exorbitant costs of housing and other necessities.
Many families are one paycheck away from economic ruin, and face a crisis every month when bills come due. Millions of workers must toil at two or more jobs to make ends meet, and have to turn to government programs or community food pantries to feed their families.
The woefully inadequate federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25 has not risen since 2009, while the cost of living has skyrocketed. If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, it would now be $12 per hour. A full-time worker earning the current minimum wage cannot pay rent in most areas of the country.
The original relief bill would have raised that minimum wage to $15, but in increments, not reaching $15 until 2025. Meanwhile, so many workers are living in crisis. They need these funds now! And more! An hourly pay rate of $20 or $25 would really make a dent in families’ bills.
However, even the proposed increase would benefit many workers. The Economic Policy Institute says that it would aid 32 million workers; 60 percent of essential and front-line workers would be helped. One-third of African Americans and one-fourth of Latinx workers would get a raise. About 25 percent of those who would gain are women workers of color.
Due to systemic racism and sexism, oppressed workers are severely underpaid. Women comprise two-thirds of the 20 million workers who are paid $10.10 per hour or less, reports the National Women’s Law Center. Half are women of color. The gender pay gap is widest for African American, Latinx, Indigenous and im/migrant women, who are paid the lowest salaries.
Most people who are paid the minimum wage are adults, and many of them remain in low-wage jobs throughout their working lives. (New York Times, Feb. 26) That makes a higher federal wage a necessity – or millions of workers simply cannot meet the burgeoning costs of life’s necessities.
The demand for the federal minimum wage hike is supported by two-thirds of the U.S. population, especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous, women and young workers. That’s why the slogan “Fight for $15” resonates so loudly from coast to coast. The struggle continues!