In Milwaukee recently, low-wage workers, union members and community activists joined a National Day of Action to raise the minimum wage. Joined by Milwaukee County Supervisor Nikiya Harris and state Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), the group staged a bus tour through poverty-level wage workplaces and circulated petitions calling for Congress to restore fairness in the minimum wage.
Within 48 hours of protests and petition signings, U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced bills to raise the minimum wage, with more than a hundred co-sponsors signing on. And the Milwaukee County Board became the first local government in the country to approve a resolution calling on Congress to raise the minimum wage.
This is good news for Adrea Pate, a single mother of two and a 9to5 Milwaukee member. Pate was hired to work for $7.25 an hour at around 40 hours a week at a chain restaurant. After her training, her hours were reduced.
Pate, who participated in Milwaukee’s Day of Action, said: “Earning less than $14,000 a year makes it nearly impossible to pay my bills and put food on the table for my two kids, let alone save for our future. I work hard, and I just want to take care of my family without lots of stress. We should raise the minimum wage so families like mine can make it.”
Women like Pate represent about two-thirds of Wisconsin workers making the state and federal minimum wage of just $7.25 per hour or less. Forget having it all – these women are trying to scrape by on wages that amount to about $15,000 for a year of full-time work.
They provide essential services in our communities: cleaning homes and offices, serving food, caring for our children and elderly parents. Many have families of their own to support. But minimum-wage earnings leave a working Wisconsin mother with two children thousands of dollars below the federal poverty line. And for workers who depend on tips – also mostly women – the picture can be even worse; the Wisconsin minimum cash wage for tipped workers is just $2.33 an hour.
More broadly, the concentration of women in low-wage jobs is one reason that women’s earnings persistently lag well behind men’s. The National Women’s Law Center shows that in 2010, the typical woman in Wisconsin working full time, year round was paid just 78 cents for every dollar paid to her male counterpart.
But there is a simple way to boost economic security for millions of women and help close the gender wage gap: Raise the federal minimum wage.
Increasing the minimum wage to $9.80 per hour would mean more than $5,000 in additional earnings each year for a full-time working mother, enough to lift her family out of poverty. Higher pay for tens of thousands of women in Wisconsin would help narrow the gender wage gap and provide a boost to our economy as well: lower-income families will spend their extra wages on goods and services that other workers provide, creating more jobs.
The Economic Policy Institute estimates that this minimum-wage increase would generate about $25 billion in economic activity and around 100,000 jobs nationally.
If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with inflation over the past 40 years, it would be more than $10.50 per hour today. Gradually raising the wage to $9.80 per hour and finally bringing up wages for tipped workers along with it are modest steps that would benefit millions of hardworking women like Pate who may not have it all but deserve a shot at having more.
Dana Schultz is chapter director of 9to5 Milwaukee.