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NEW YORK -- Although the economy is continuing its slow recovery from the Great Recession, that's not enough for some states. Legislators in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and elsewhere are pushing to raise their states' minimum wages above the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, arguing that the current federal rate is not high enough for anyone to live on, according to the New York Times.
The federal minimum wage was last increased in July 2009. An individual who works full-time at the current rate makes $15,080 per year. The 2006 bill that raised the federal minimum phased in higher rates over several years, but unlike in some states, it does not automatically increase with the overall cost of living.
The Massachusetts Legislature's joint committee on labor has already approved a measure that would raise the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour, putting it ahead of Washington State, which currently pays the highest minimum wage at $9.04 per hour. Meanwhile, Missouri voters may have the chance to vote on a minimum wage referendum this fall.
These potential changes are putting more pressure on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage again, according to the Times. As chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has been urged to spearhead an effort to increase the minimum wage to $9.80 per hour by 2014. Harkin has expressed support for a "reasonable" minimum wage, but plans to wait for more support for an increase before introducing legislation on the matter.
Public debate over wage increases and the potential to put Republicans on the defensive during an election year are contributing to the push for a federal increase, according to the report. "It's always good to surface an issue that captures voters' enthusiasm and distinguishes the bad guys and the good guys," said Jen Kern, minimum wage campaign coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers.
However, members of the business community have said a federal minimum wage increase would endanger already-shaky job growth. "It's a classic election-year ploy to make the Democrats look like they're protecting low-income workers," said Randal K. Johnson, senior vice president for labor issues at the United States Chamber of Commerce. "I think it's well understood that raising the minimum wage hurts workers on the lower end of the pay scale in that it does kill jobs."
Jack Mozloom, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, added: “On this issue, our members tell us overwhelmingly everywhere they hate it".
Wage increase-advocates, though, point to studies that have found an increase in minimum wages did not decrease the number of available jobs. "You ask business why they’re not hiring. They say it’s because no one is buying anything," said Kern. "Well, a higher minimum wage would give people more money to spend."
Federal data shows that 1.8 million hourly workers earned the federal minimum wage in 2010, while another 2.5 million earned below minimum wage due to exemptions for certain job categories. Left-leaning research organization Economic Policy Institute has suggested that a federal minimum wage of $9.80 would increase pay for more than 28 million workers, increase the gross domestic product (GDP) by more than $25 billion and create the equivalent of 100,000 full-time jobs.
Despite the lack of consensus on whether an increase would be helpful or harmful, public support remains strong: a Quinnipiac University poll found that 78 percent of New Yorkers support an increase, including 53 percent of Republicans.
Current initiatives to raise state minimum wages are underway in New York, where Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver proposed a bill to boost the minimum from $7.25 to $8.50; in New Jersey, where Senate and Assembly leaders also support raising the minimum from $7.25 to $8.50; and Connecticut, where the House Labor Committee voted in favor of a bill that would raise the state minimum from $8.25 to $9.25 by 2014 in two 50-cent increments.