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Workers call for action as legislators debate minimum wage increase
A legislative conference committee convened Thursday to consider an increase in Minnesota’s minimum wage, as workers continued a week of action to call attention to the problem of low wages.
The hearing room was packed as several dozen supporters and opponents testified before the conference committee, which must reconcile a House bill that raises the minimum to $9.50 an hour and a Senate bill that would increase it to $7.75.
Advocates said $9.50 – while a huge step forward from the state’s current minimum of $6.15 an hour – would still leave some people in poverty.
Cantaré Davunt of Duluth has worked at Walmart for nearly five years. A college graduate, Davunt only makes $8.05 per hour and has been unable to find a better job in today's economy.
For her, “$9.50 isn’t really a livable wage, but it’s better than what I have now.” An increase would help pay off her student loans, Davunt noted.
Other workers described working two or three jobs and having little time to spend with their children.
Kris Jacobs, executive director of the JOBS NOW Coalition, said new data shows a worker in Hennepin County would need to earn $18.53 an hour to cover food, housing and other basic needs for a family of four. In Blue Earth County, the figure needed to cover basic needs is $13.74 an hour.
“I ask that you keep these numbers in mind,” Jacobs told the lawmakers.
Marching on Walmart
Earlier on Thursday, miles away from the state Capitol, a group of single mothers marched in sub-zero temperatures to a Walmart store in Brooklyn Center. They called on the company to pay living wages to its employees and enact family-friendly policies to lift women and their children out of poverty.
Two out of three minimum wage workers are women, nearly four of 10 are women of color – and these women are disproportionately single mothers.
The demonstrators included Jacquita Berens, a single mother of three, who is a full-time student and works two full-time jobs. She is not a Walmart employee but has family and friends who work minimum wage jobs at the giant retailer.
“I and many others like me are working hard, long shifts daily, away from our children and families yet receive no benefits,” Berens said. “As employees, we’re constantly put in situations where we’re forced to choose whether to care for our sick children or lose our jobs. Poverty wages just aren’t right.”
Marchers also called on Walmart to stop retaliatory practices against workers for speaking out for better pay and working conditions. In particular, Thursday’s event spotlighted April Williams, whom Walmart fired earlier in the week after participating in a one-day strike last November at the Brooklyn Center store.
On Wednesday, Target was in the spotlight for the low wages paid to the workers who clean its stores. Demonstrators marched through the downtown Minneapolis skyways and walked silently, fists raised, through the Nicollet Mall Target store.
“I am a single mother of five children trying to get by on the $8 an hour I am paid to clean a Target store,” said Maricela Flores. “It must be difficult for the CEO of Target, Gregg Steinhafel, to understand what it is like to be paid such low wages. In 2012 Mr. Steinheffel made over $9,900 an hour – he does not have to live the constant reality of choosing between paying rent, food, clothes, healthcare, etc.
“We are calling on Mr. Steinheffel to take the ‘Working America Minimum Wage Challenge’and live on $7.25 an hour for one week to understand what we face.”
Opponents seek tip penalty
Back at the Capitol, opponents argued the minimum wage was mainly paid to teenagers and college students “learning basic job skills.”
They focused much of their testimony on the fact that Minnesota is one of only seven states that do not allow employers to substitute customer tips for wages. In Wisconsin, for example, servers and other tipped employees may be paid as little as $2.33 an hour, with the rest of their compensation coming from tips.
Lobbyists for the restaurant industry urged lawmakers to adopt language in the final minimum wage bill that would allow this "tip credit," which supporters of a higher minimum wage refer to as a "tip penalty."
Several members of the faith community spoke out in support of a higher wage, saying it was a moral issue.
The Rev. Eliot Howard of the Linden Hills United Church of Christ related the story of a 22-year-old father who is raising his two-year-old daughter essentially on his own, as his wife is suffering from a mental illness.
The young man earns $7.80 an hour. The family survives, in part, because of the church-run food shelf and other assistance. Occasionally, Howard said, he is able to give the young father an extra $20 to buy diapers.
“I’m speaking on his behalf and on behalf of all the other minimum wage workers who can’t be here,” he said.
The conference committee is scheduled to reconvene Friday to hear more testimony.
© 2014 Workday Minnesota