By Sharon Johnson
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Congress hasn't approved a final version of a minimum wage hike, yet some activists are pressing for living wage packages in the states that go even further. Local groups are lobbying for paid sick leave, improved health care and other benefits.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Gina Walter has been through a lot in her 44 years: a brush with death when a heart valve failed, two decades of struggling to clothe and educate her three children and a brief stint in a homeless shelter when her 13-year marriage to a cook collapsed.
But the sustaining force in Walter's hard-scrabble life is work.
Beginning at age 14, she held a series of backbreaking jobs in fast food restaurants in Ohio's steel belt. In 2005, Walter, a high school graduate, switched to retailing. Promoted three times from sorter to cashier, she takes home $388 every two weeks for full-time, minimum wage work at a thrift store with 20 employees in Columbus, Ohio.
"Affording the necessities of life is a struggle when you earn the federal minimum wage, $5.15 an hour," she said. "I spend $365 a month for rent plus $60 or more for heat, water and electricity for my modest one-bedroom apartment."
To economize, Walter walks one mile to work and never takes a sick day because she does not get paid.
Her safety net consists of a "positive attitude" rather than savings or retirement funds. Although her employer offers health insurance, Walter can't afford the $200-a-month premiums; her top priority is paying off the $950 in medical bills she charged on a credit card in 2000.
Thanks to the voters of Ohio who raised the state's minimum wage to $6.85 per hour Nov. 7, Walter has an extra $75 each month to pay her debt.
Ohio was one of six states that passed ballot initiatives related to minimum wage in 2006.
Twenty-three states now have a higher minimum wage than the federal standard: 17 of these rose in the last 18 months.
In April 2006, Albuquerque, N.M., became the fourth city--after Santa Fe, N.M, San Francisco and Washington--to enact a minimum wage that is higher than the federal or state laws. Unlike the ordinances of other cities that apply only to public employees and businesses with government contracts, the ordinances in these four cities apply to privately owned businesses as well.
After a decade of inaction, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a minimum wage bill Jan. 10 that boosted the federal minimum wage by $2.10 to $7.25 an hour. Republican senators rejected the House version of the bill and added $8.3 billion in tax breaks for business to their version, which was approved Feb. 1.
The House, in turn, decreased the tax breaks by $7 billion in its Feb. 16 measure. A final bill must be negotiated before it is sent to the president to be signed into law.
Proponents aren't waiting for Congress to act. Encouraged by their victories in the states, women's groups, community organizations and unions are campaigning for livable wage packages on the local level that extend a higher minimum wage to a broader range of workers and include benefits that workers like Gina Walter lack.
"Unlike Congress where minimum wage bills have become a political football, legislatures and voters in the states have eagerly approved raises," said Linda Meric, director of 9to5 National Association of Working Women, a major proponent based in Milwaukee, Wis. "Minimum wage hikes were approved in every state where they were on the ballot Nov. 7."
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