Congress will pass an embarrassing milestone on Saturday: a dozen years without so much as a penny increase to the federal minimum wage.
The wage floor set by the federal government remains just $7.25 per hour, well below a living wage everywhere in the country. A worker earning that pay with a full-time schedule would bring home an annual salary of only $15,000, hardly enough to cover basic living expenses for a single person, let alone a family.
The last time the federal minimum wage increased was on July 24, 2009, seven months into then-President Barack Obama’s first term. It was one of a series of hikes rolled into a war funding package passed two years earlier and signed by then-President George W. Bush.
Democrats have tried boosting the federal floor repeatedly since then, only to be stymied by Republicans in either the House or Senate or both. In the course of a decade, Democrats have steadily raised their target wage, from $10.10 per hour to the current $15. A $15 minimum wage bill has already passed the Democrat-controlled House but hasn’t overcome a GOP filibuster in the Senate.
$7.25 per hour translates into an annual salary of just $15,000 for a full-time worker.
Meanwhile, more and more states, including some dominated politically by Republicans, have passed their own local increases. Today, 30 states and the District of Columbia have a more generous wage floor than the one set by Congress. The federal minimum of $7.25 prevails in the other 20 states that don’t mandate a higher one.
The union-backed Fight for $15 campaign held a series of protests on Tuesday to draw attention to the dubious anniversary coming Saturday. The group released a statement attributed to Taiwanna Milligan, a worker at a McDonald’s in Charleston, South Carolina, who said she was taking part in a one-day strike to note the occasion.
“The last time the minimum wage went up here in South Carolina, my 14-year-old was in diapers,” Milligan said.
South Carolina is one of just five states, all in the South, that have no state minimum wage. It is also one of a handful of states where Republicans have passed preemption laws that forbid local increases passed by cities or counties.
That means any increase to help Milligan would probably have to come from Congress and the White House.
Some Republicans have shown a willingness to discuss the issue. Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) have proposed boosting the federal floor to $10 over the course of five years while requiring employers to use e-Verify to crack down on undocumented workers.
Top Democrats have criticized the proposal for both the lower wage target and the e-Verify measure, though Romney previously said he’s been working with Arizona centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) on a bipartisan deal.
Democrats’ latest proposal would hike the minimum wage to $15 over the course of five years and eliminate the so-called tipped minimum wage in seven. Under the current rules for tipped workers, employers can pay as little as $2.13 per hour so long as gratuities get the worker up to at least $7.25.
Democrats hold a 50-50 majority in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tie-breaking vote. It’s not a large enough majority to surpass the 60-vote threshold created by the Senate filibuster. Democrats had hoped to push through a minimum wage hike on a party-line vote using a process known as budget reconciliation, but so far they have been unsuccessful.
So far, they have encountered two hurdles to that plan: a determination by the Senate parliamentarian that a minimum wage hike does not pass muster with reconciliation rules, and insufficient support for $15 within their own caucus. Some moderates still have not signed onto the increase, saying they’re concerned it might hit business owners too hard.
In March, eight Democratic senators voted against a proposal to include a $15 minimum wage increase in a coronavirus relief package. Among them was Sinema, who went viral for her thumbs down when casting her vote on the Senate floor.
President Joe Biden has said he wants to sign a $15 minimum wage bill and has already moved to increase the wage floor on his own, albeit in a limited manner. Biden signed an executive order shortly after taking office directing federal agencies to implement a $15 wage floor for workers employed under federal contracts.
On Wednesday, the Labor Department released the proposed rule that would accomplish that aim. Rather than carry out a gradual phase-in, the measure would require companies under new federal contracts to pay at least $15 per hour starting Jan. 30, 2022. Future increases would be tied to an inflation index, so that the wage floor adjusted according to the cost of living, and the tipped minimum wage for contractors would be eliminated by 2024.
Jessica Looman, the acting administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, said in a statement that the increase would “uphold the dignity of work” and make sure the federal government does not underwrite jobs that pay poverty wages.
The new wage floor would apply to workers in concessions, maintenance, construction and other fields who are employed in federal buildings and on federal lands. The measure must undergo a period of public comment before it can be implemented later this year.
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