By U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
Today, in 100 cities nationwide, fast-food workers are speaking out and taking action. Their message is simple: they want a wage that allows them to raise their families without living in poverty.
I’ve met with these workers. I’ve looked into their eyes and seen their pride and their dignity, but also their distress and anxiety. “I worked there for 16 years,” one woman said of her employer. “I raised my children doing this. And now I find myself homeless and just trying to get back on my feet.” One man asked: “Why are we working full-time and have to apply for food stamps?” Another spoke of coming to work despite burn marks on his arm, the flu and a sprained tendon in his elbow: “I can’t afford to take off work,” he said. “I can’t miss any days.”
Around the country, these voices are resonating. We see momentum gathering and a consensus emerging around the idea that we need to increase the federal minimum wage, to give these workers and millions like them a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. You can’t open the newspaper or check the Internet without seeing stories about workers struggling to get by and making the case for higher pay.
Congress needs to respond to the organic grass-roots energy that continues to build. A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than three-quarters of Americans support a minimum wage increase. Cities, states and localities have begun taking matters into their own hands and raising the minimum wage in their jurisdictions. In Montgomery County, Md., where I live, a dramatic minimum wage increase will be signed into law tomorrow. Neighboring Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia are poised to do the same.
In last month’s elections, the city of SeaTac, Wash., took the extraordinary step of ratifying a $15 per hour wage floor. And in New Jersey, while the re-election of Gov. Chris Christie generated most of the media buzz, the ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage actually got a higher percentage of the vote than did the governor.
President Obama has made a minimum wage increase a focal point of his economic agenda. In a speech on economic mobility earlier today, he said: “We know that there are airport workers, fast-food workers, nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty. That’s why it’s well past the time to raise a minimum wage that in real terms is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.”
The president sees this as smart economic policy that strengthens all of us. Consumer demand is the lifeblood of our economy, accounting for 70 percent of GDP. When you put more money in the pockets of working families, they spend it on groceries, gas, school supplies, and other goods and services. And that helps businesses grow and create jobs.
So many forward-looking employers, large and small, understand this. I’ve talked to several CEOs – from a recycling company in Indiana, a furniture company in Kentucky, a brewing company in Colorado and more – who believe paying higher wages is both the right thing to do and part of a successful business model.
To reward work, to grow the middle class and strengthen the economy, to give millions of Americans the respect they deserve … it’s time to raise the minimum wage.
The national conversation about the minimum wage continues at #MWRaise.
Thomas E. Perez is the U.S. Secretary of Labor.