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.
Minimum wage hikes have fared well at the local level because they have been championed by broad coalitions that have been able to overcome opposition from business, which has torpedoed bills in Congress.
Coalitions have included long-time union supporters like the AFL-CIO, the Washington-based federation of trade unions, some of which helped pass the first federal minimum wage law in 1938. Other supporters include women's groups such as 9to5, religious leaders and community organizations like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families known as ACORN.
"The support of women's groups has been crucial in overcoming the misconception that a minimum wage worker is a teenager who works after school," said Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, co-director of the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington, Vt., which led the campaign that boosted the state's minimum wage law in 1996. "Sixty percent of minimum wage workers are women, many of whom are the sole support of their families. Because women work in retail sales, restaurants and clerical positions, women are twice as likely to earn the minimum wage as are men. For women of color, the wage gap is even greater."
Today organizations like the Peace and Justice Center are concentrating on getting legislatures to approve living wage packages that include health insurance, paid sick days and other benefits such as paid child care and retirement.
"Like many states and the federal government, Vermont's minimum wage is lower for workers who receive tips, which hurts large numbers of women who work in the tourism industry," said Mulvaney-Stanak.
Her group is supporting a bill to establish a single minimum wage and offer five sick days a year to employees who work at least 30 hours a week. Vermont's bill establishes a series of gradual increases for tipped workers and an annual inflation adjustment.
Paid family and medical leave is on the agenda of Women Employed, a Chicago-based advocacy group that helped raise the minimum wage in Illinois to $7.50 per hour plus annual raises. About 150,000 women received a boost in pay when the law went into effect in 2005.
"Unfortunately, any gains in income from the minimum wage can be quickly eliminated if a woman loses a day or two of pay because she is ill or has to care for a sick child, spouse or elderly parent," said Melissa Josephs, director of equal opportunity policy at Women Employed. "Seventy-seven percent of the lowest wage workers have no paid sick leave, so we organized a coalition of over 30 women's, health and family groups to convince the Legislature to approve a plan that would give an employee 67 percent of wages to a maximum of $380 per week for four weeks."
ACORN, which helped deliver more than 140 local living wage laws since the first campaign in Baltimore in 1994, has also broadened its advocacy efforts. A major goal is to extend ordinances so that they will protect low-wage workers in the private as well as public sector.
The 220,000-member organization is also supporting family-friendly benefits. In 2006, the San Francisco chapter helped pass an ordinance providing health care for every resident. Chapters in San Diego and Columbus, Ohio, helped eliminated $1.2 million in liens for patients unfairly denied reduced cost "charity care" at local hospitals. And in Rhode Island, ACORN members helped pass one of the strictest laws against predatory lending in the nation.
"The great accomplishment of the minimum wage movement is that it changed the conversation about work," said Jen Kern, director of ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Today the message that if you work hard, you should not be forced to live in poverty is widely accepted."
Sharon Johnson is a freelance writer in New York.
9to5, National Association of Working Women:
ACORN, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Inc.:
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