It started in 2012 with a group of protesters outside a McDonald’s demanding a minimum wage of $ 15 – an idea that even many liberal lawmakers saw as extravagant. In the years that followed, their struggle gained traction across the country, including in conservative states with low unionization rates and generally weak labor laws.
On Friday, 20 states and 32 cities and counties will raise their minimum wages. In 27 of those places, the wage floor will reach or exceed $ 15 an hour, according to a report released Thursday by the National Employment Law Project, which supports minimum wage increases.
The force of the movement – a voting measure to raise Florida’s minimum wage to $ 15 by 2026 was passed in November – could put further pressure on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage by 7.25 $ an hour, where he’s been since 2009. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has approved $ 15 an hour federally and other changes sought by labor groups, such as ending the practice of a lower minimum wage for workers such as restaurateurs who receive tips.
But even without congressional action, union activists said they would continue to push their campaign forward at the national and local levels. By 2026, 42% of Americans work in a place where the minimum wage is at least $ 15 an hour, according to an estimate by the Economic Policy Institute cited in the NELP report.
“These wages which are rising in a record number of states are the result of years of advocacy by workers and years of walking in the streets and organizing their colleagues and their communities,” said Yannet Lathrop, researcher and political analyst for the group.
Pay rates rise as workers grapple with a recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic that has left millions unemployed.
“The Covid crisis has really exacerbated inequalities in society,” said Greg Daco, chief US economist for Oxford Economics. “It has given more strength to these movements which are trying to ensure that everyone benefits from a strong labor market in the form of a sustainable salary.”
During the pandemic, workers were subjected to time off, pay cuts and reduced hours. Low-paid service workers have not had the opportunity to work from home, and the customer-contact nature of their work puts them at increased risk of contracting the virus. Many retailers gave workers raises – or “hero pay” – at the start of the pandemic, to quietly end the practice in the summer, even as the virus continued to soar in many states.
“The coronavirus pandemic has plunged many working families into extreme poverty,” said Anthony Advincula, director of communications for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit focused on improving wages and working conditions . “This increase in the minimum wage will therefore be a welcome huge boost for low-wage workers, especially in the restaurant industry.”
Mary Kay Henry, international president of the International Union of Services Employees, said the labor movement will make getting even more workers to $ 15 an hour or more a priority in 2021.
“There are millions of additional workers who need to have more money in their pockets,” she said, adding that the election of Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would strengthen the ‘effort. “We have an incredible opportunity.”
Since many hourly workers are black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian, people of color stand to gain from increases in the minimum wage. A 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that workers of color are much more likely to earn poverty wages than white workers.
“This is the most spectacular action to create racial equality,” Ms. Henry said.
Some economists say lifting the minimum wage will benefit the economy and could be an important part of the recovery from the pandemic recession. Part of the reason for this is that working poor people typically spend most of the money they earn, and that spending mostly takes place where they live and work.
Kate Bahn, director of labor market policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, said that after the 2007-2009 recession, growth was anemic for years as wages stagnated and the labor market slowly recovered. his path.
“There has been a broader recognition that the lackluster wage growth we’ve seen over the past 30 years and since the Great Recession reflects structural imbalances in the economy and structural inequalities,” Ms. Bahn said.
Many business groups retort that raising the minimum wage will hurt small businesses, already in the grip of the pandemic. More than 110,000 restaurants have closed permanently or for the long term during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Raising the minimum wage could lead employers to lay off some workers in order to pay more for others, said David Neumark, professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine.
“There is a ton of research that indicates that increasing the minimum wage can lead to job losses,” he said. “A lot of workers are helped, but some are injured.”
A 2019 Congressional Budget Office study found that a federal minimum wage of $ 15 would raise the wages of 17 million workers earning less than that and potentially an additional 10 million workers earning slightly more. According to the study’s median estimate, this would result in the loss of an additional 1.3 million workers.
In New York, Republicans in the state Senate had urged Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, to stop the increases that went into effect Thursday, arguing they could be “the last straw” for some. small enterprises.
While increases in the minimum wage beyond a certain point could lead to job losses, Ms. Bahn of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth argued that “we are a long way from that point.”
Economic research has shown that recent minimum wage increases did not cause huge job losses. In a 2019 study, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that wages had risen sharply for leisure and hospitality workers in New York counties bordering Pennsylvania, which had a lower minimum, while employment growth continued. In many cases, higher minimum wages are applied over several years to give companies time to adjust.
Regardless of whether there is federal action, more state voting initiatives will seek to raise the minimum wage, said Arindrajit Dube, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
“At a fundamental level, people think it’s about fairness,” Dube said. “There is broad support for the idea that people who work should be paid a living wage.”
Jeanna Smialekcontribution to reports.