minimum wage
March 5, 2021

Eight Democratic senators voted against Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) effort to get a minimum wage hike included in the COVID-19 relief bill, but one senator in particular seems to be taking the most heat for it.

Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) voted against an amendment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over five years, which Sanders introduced after the Senate Parliamentarian ruled the increase couldn't be included under budget reconciliation. She and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) were two moderate Democrats who were expected to oppose the move, since Sinema has said she thinks the issue of a minimum wage hike should be debated separately.

Though Sinema's vote wasn't a surprise, critics were still baffled. The Arizona senator, after all, had been pushing for a higher minimum wage for years, calling it a "no-brainer" back in 2014. As The New Republic notes, citing her election win margins, the proposal to raise the wage "is almost definitely more popular than the senator herself in her home state of Arizona ... Hundreds of thousands more Arizonans voted to raise the minimum wage than to make Kyrsten Sinema a senator." Over on Twitter, "Marie Antoinette" began trending after reporters noted she had brought a "large chocolate cake" into the Senate to share with staffers. An opinion column in the Arizona Republic raged, "Sinema apparently just wants the little people to eat cake."

Democratic Sens. Jon Tester (Mt.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Angus King (I-Maine), Chris Coons (Del.) and Tom Carper (Del.) also all voted against the amendment, but none faced the same level of public ire. One possible explanation? The Washington Post's Greg Sargent points out Sinema has the largest number of constituents affected by the failed wage hike. Summer Meza

Opinion
March 5, 2021

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has long been on a crusade to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. After being blocked by the Senate parliamentarian on the question of whether the minimum wage increase could be included in the pandemic relief package working its way through the chamber, Sanders filed it on Friday as an individual item to get all senators on the record. The results were quite surprising.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were already assumed to not support the $15 mark. But opposition among the Democratic Party's conservative wing was much deeper than that. Six more Democrats voted against the measure aside from them, for a total of eight: Jon Tester of Montana, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Angus King of Maine (an independent who caucuses with the Democrats), and finally Chris Coons and Tom Carper of Delaware.

All these senators are from purple or red states — except Carper and Coons, where Biden won by 19 percentage points. (Those two are doubly suspicious as both are close to Biden personally and Coons is well-known as his voice in the Senate.)

But needing to run for re-election in a hard state is no excuse. A $15 minimum wage is extremely popular — polling between 59 percent and 67 percent approval, depending on the poll — and almost certainly more popular than every one of these senators in their home states. A minimum wage hike has not failed to pass at the state level since 1996. Voting against such a policy is therefore a considerable political risk, though it also no doubt increases the chance these senators will have comfy post-office sinecures in the corporate sector, should they so desire. Ryan Cooper

February 26, 2021

The Democrats' push, most prominently by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour hit a significant snag on Thursday. But Costco, the No. 2 U.S. bricks-and-mortar retailer, raised the ante anyway, announcing Thursday — at a Senate hearing chaired by Sanders — that it is raising its own minimum wage to $16 an hour, starting next week. Costco set its lowest hourly wage at $15 in 2019, a year after raising it to $14. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since 2009.

"I want to note: this isn't altruism," Costco CEO Craig Jelinek said at the Senate Budget Committee hearing. "At Costco, we know that paying employees good wages and providing affordable benefits makes sense for our business and constitutes a significant competitive advantage for us." About 90 percent of Costco's 180,000 U.S. workers are hourly employees, and 20 percent of them earn its minimum wage. The average hourly wage is $24, and Jelinek said the company has been paying a $2 hourly hazard bonus since March. That will end next month but be converted to wage increases company-wide, he added.

Costco's raise could pressure its large competitors to follow suit, CNN says. Target and Best Buy raised their minimum wage to $15 last year, while Walmart's minimum wage is $11, rising soon to $13 an hour for about a quarter of its workforce. Amazon's minimum wage has been $15 an hour since 2018. Peter Weber

February 26, 2021

Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough on Thursday effectively killed a Democratic push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, ruling that the measure doesn't pass muster under the budget reconciliation rules Democrats are using to pass the package with a simple majority in the Senate.

Two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), have already said they would vote against including the $15 minimum wage provision in the relief package, dealing it a near-fatal blow in the 50-50 Senate. But many supporters of the wage hike were nonetheless irritated that an obscure, unelected Senate official was the one to ax the broadly popular measure. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was among them, but he also had a Plan B.

"In the coming days, I will be working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward with an amendment to take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don't pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages," Sanders said in a statement. "That amendment must be included in the reconciliation bill." Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) echoed Sanders, saying he's "looking at a tax penalty for mega-corporations that refuse to pay a living wage."

The House is scheduled to vote on the $1.9 trillion package, including the $15 minimum wage, on Friday, but the measure can be amended when it arrives in the Senate. If they reconfigure the minimum wage increase as a tax penalty, which is "likely to qualify under the reconciliation rules," Bloomberg News reports, "Democrats have less than three weeks to draft the changes, convince all 50 senators who caucus with the party to support the tax increases — and the specifics of the minimum-wage hike. ... Targeting only large, profitable companies could help assuage concerns from some moderate Democrats who are hesitant to support large-scale tax increases." Peter Weber

February 25, 2021

The Senate parliamentarian ruled on Thursday evening that Democrats cannot include a $15 per hour minimum wage in their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough determined that the policy did not meet the standard for it to be included under budget reconciliation, which allows the Senate to pass certain budget-related bills with a simple majority.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats are "deeply disappointed in this decision. We are not going to give up the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 to help millions of struggling American workers and their families." President Biden has said he will back a standalone bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Catherine Garcia

February 23, 2021

Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Tuesday unveiled a plan to gradually raise the minimum wage to $10, rather than the $15 their Democratic colleagues are targeting. The reaction among conservatives was mixed.

Brad Polumbo, writing in The Washington Examiner, called the plan an "abandonment" of fiscal conservatism, likening it to "something out of" Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) office. The plan, Polumbo continues, "ignores everything conservatives are supposed to understand about economics and the perils of big government," asserting that while both Romney and Cotton market themselves as "pro-family social conservatives," their plan "would hurt working families if implemented."

At The National Review, however, John McCormack writes that research has shown the plan wouldn't cost any jobs at its median estimates, and high-end estimates point to around 100,000 losses. McCormack's colleague Robert VerBruggen thinks it will "resonate with the public" as a middle ground policy that comes attached to an immigration enforcement measure — in addition to the gradual wage increase, the Romney-Cotton plan would require businesses to use the "E-verify system" to ensure their employees are in the country legally and eligible to work.

At Bloomberg, Michael Strain, the director of of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, praised the Romney-Cotton plan for its patience, noting that it would delay the increase until after the coronavirus pandemic "is in the rear-view mirror," whereas the Democratic proposal backed by President Biden would start churning in June. But he doesn't believe it will prevent Democrats from continuing to lobby for further raises, and ultimately doesn't solve the fact that "Republicans would still be on the losing side of a popular issue." He is also skeptical of the immigration enforcement tradeoff. He described it as a "politically interesting pairing," but explained he'd "rather see a modest minimum wage increase paired with policies that would improve employment and skills." Tim O'Donnell

June 27, 2017

After Monday's news that Seattle's $15 minimum wage experiment is actually lowering low-wage employees' income, restaurant workers in Maine must be feeling pretty prescient. Their minimum wage saga started back in November, when voters approved a referendum raising their minimum wage from $3.75 an hour in 2016 to $12 by 2024.

The intention was to lessen servers' reliance on tips, a plan that only sounded good to people who aren't servers. Since that vote, restaurant workers have lobbied the state legislature to undo the change, arguing it will mean lower income and preferring to maintain the tips system instead. This month, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in their favor, and Gov. Paul LePage (R) signed the bill into law late last week.

The servers' stance has them at odds with labor activists who insist tipped wages expose restaurant workers to exploitation. "I don't need to be 'saved' [by activists], and I’ll be damned if small groups of uninformed people are voting on my livelihood," said Sue Vallenza, a Maine bartender who saw her tips decrease after the referendum. "You can't cut someone off at the knees like that."

Similar wage debates are brewing in other states, including Minnesota, Massachusetts, and New York. There too, tipped workers have begun to organize to oppose changes to their pay. Bonnie Kristian

June 26, 2017

A 2014 law designed to incrementally raise the minimum wage of Seattle's low-income workers up to $15 an hour has apparently backfired, a study conducted by University of Washington economists concluded. The findings show that low-wage employees actually lost an average of $125 a month under the new model, or about $1,500 a year, due to employers' reduced payrolls and hours.

Most alarmingly, "the paper's conclusions contradict years of research on the minimum wage," The Washington Post reports. "Many past studies, by contrast, have found that the benefits of increases for low-wage workers exceed the costs in terms of reduced employment — often by a factor of four or five to one."

Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor, who reviewed the paper, said the study strikes him as "likely to influence people" and called the work "very credible." "If I were a Seattle lawmaker, I would be thinking hard about the $15 an hour phase-in," said Autor.

Still, the research is in its early stages and has not yet been tested by peer review. But based on the preliminary findings, FiveThirtyEight suggests the Seattle experiment — with the highest minimum wage in the nation, at $13 an hour in 2016 — was possibly a case of being too extreme too quickly.

"The literature shows that moderate minimum wage increases seem to consistently have their intended effects, [but] you have to admit that the increases that we're now contemplating go beyond moderate," said economist Jared Bernstein, of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "That doesn't mean, however, that you know what the outcome is going to be. You have to test it, you have to scrutinize it, which is why Seattle is a great test case." Jeva Lange

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