(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.

On the Ballot in Six States

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."

Community Organizers Champion Cause

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 Leave on the Agenda

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.

For more information:

9to5, National Association of Working Women:

Women Employed:

ACORN, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Inc.:

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of site the link points to may change.