July 05, 2006

Clinton Calls For Minimum Wage Hike: Experts, Community Members Applaud

The days of families struggling to get by on a minimum wage salary that leaves them scraping to survive below the national poverty level should be banished, according to Senator Hillary Clinton.

In April, Clinton introduced legislation that would link a national minimum wage hike with Congressional salary increases. And, in a conference call last week, Clinton said the Senate is prepared to block Congressional raises until the American public is also rewarded some relief.

Clinton said her bill was inspired by an idea submitted to a website, sinceslicedbread.com in the context of a contest held by the Service Employees International Union that asked Americans for ideas that would make life better for working families.

The senator was joined in her efforts by Andy Stern, president of SEIU.

"Along with millions of Americans across the country, we believe we have a responsibility to help the millions of struggling workers who at the end of year of work, are still not above the poverty level," said Clinton.

Congress last voted almost a decade ago to increase the minimum wage, but reminded Clinton, during the past nine years, "Congress has raised its own pay by $31,600 while stiffing minimum wage workers. It seems to me if Congress can give itself a raise than it certainly ought to be able to give a pay raise to working families."

Fifteen and a half million Americans, said Clinton, would benefit from a minimum wage increase and two thirds of them are women. In New York, over 80% are adults, more than half are employed full time, and many are responsible for bringing in more than half of their family's total earnings. And 28% of New York families affected by a minimum wage hike entirely depend upon those earnings.

"It's not fair that we don't do something to help that hardworking person make some headway," said Clinton. "A single mother with two children who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, earns just $10,700 year, almost $6000 below the federal poverty line for a family of three."

The national minimum wage is currently $5.15 an hour. Clinton, along with Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative George Miller were co-sponsors of the initiative to increase the minimum wage to $7.25, an effort that has been blocked by Republicans.

Clinton is working with Kennedy and other Senate colleagues to attach the minimum wage increase to the Defense Authorization bill and has introduced the Standing with Minimum Wage Earners Act,†to link Congressional pay increases to increases in the federal minimum wage.

The bill would also require the minimum wage to be increased by the same percentage amount as Congressional salaries every year. †

The minimum wage in New York is $6.75 per hour and will increase to $7.15 per hour in January 2007. If the federal minimum wage ever exceeds New York's wage, New York law stipulates that state minimum wage would be raised to reflect the increase.

Across the board, Clinton's action has received applause. Barbara Ehrenreich, the New York Times best-selling author of Nickel and Dimed, which explored the lives of minimum wage workers in America, said that she was "delighted to hear" of the senator's initiative.

Although the amount proposed by the Democrats to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 "is not very high," according to Ehrenreich, "it would be a boost for a lot of people and not just those currently at the minimum wage. It would produce some upward pressure for a lot of people."

But, said Ehrenreich, more needs to be done to solve problems nationwide. "There are a lot of costs that employers, in the end, can't bear," she said. "Health care is one of them."

Health care should be available to everyone, but said Ehrenreich, "It's very destructive to our economy for businesses if they have to take on that burden."

Instead, Ehrenreich proposes health care should either be a function of government, "some giant quasi-public organization, or whether it's done on a more locally accountable way."

Other problems that need to be addressed are the nation's affordable housing crisis, said Ehrenreich. And, she added, the United States should look to countries such as France, where child care is available for everyone.

"Those are all ways where you could expand government services to take the burden off the individual employer. As long as those things aren't happening, we have to keep just pressing away on wages."

Ehrenreich also lauded successful movements by states such as New York that haven't "been waiting for the federal governments," and have raised their minimum wages.

East End residents applauded Clinton's actions. Bob Paquette, owner of The Arcade in Greenport, said a raise in minimum wage would not affect his business because he has to pay so much more than minimum wage. "Anyone who's paying minimum wage in this state should be shot, anyway. And people who say it's going to hurt business, I just don't understand. Rich people have a tendency to make statements like that because they don't understand what it's like to try to survive."

Raising the minimum wage would help independent businesses compete with big box and chain stores, said Paquette. "Anything that makes it a little bit more [of a] playing field with the big guys — because it's the big guys who take advantage of it."

Wal-Mart Vision Center employee Eileen Brennan said a minimum wage hike "sounds very good. I'm not a fan of Hillary, but that's a good one." It's a good idea, especially in New York, she said. "Nobody can live on a minimum wage. Even with two jobs."

Clinton concluded: "Let's get back on the right track and take care of people who work hard and play by the rules, and give them a chance to pull themselves and their families up the economic scale."

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