In most states, even $15 an hour is not enough

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Low-wage workers nationwide have been campaigning for a $15 hourly “living wage” and the right to organize without employer labor law-breaking. But a new think tank report says that in most states, $15 is not enough – even for one person.

As a matter of fact, adds the report, Pay Up: Long Hours And Low Pay Leaves Workers At A Loss, the national average hourly living wage for a single person should be $16.87, at least as of the end of last year. In D.C., Hawaii and Maryland, it should be over $20.

For families, the situation is even worse. In Massachusetts, for example, a single mother with two kids would need to earn $43.30 an hour to achieve a living wage.

The Alliance for a Just Society has issued such wage reports since 1999, but this is its first to discuss living wages. The issue is important: A living wage – or lack of it – is a key factor in income inequality, the yawning gap between the rich and the rest of us, nationwide.

“Workers are struggling, and it is past time for change. Increasing the federal minimum wage to a living wage and abolishing the tipped subminimum wage will be a strong step in the right direction, while unionization and enforcement of equal opportunity statutes will ensure that all workers have access to benefits and protections in the workplace,” the report says.

Its specific findings and some case studies of various states show:

A national living wage for a single adult is $16.87 per hour, based on a weighted average of living wages nationally. The living wage for a single adult ranges from $21.86 hourly in D.C. and $21.44 in Hawaii to $14.26 in Arkansas. The living wage is defined as the wage a worker needs to provide for the necessities of life while working a normal week.

– Besides Arkansas, the only states where the living wage for a single adult would be under $15 an hour are Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, both Dakotas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming. Though the report did not say so, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, West Virginia, and Ohio are not so- called “right-to-work” states.

– Tipped workers are even worse off. The federal tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25, which hasn’t risen in almost a decade. Though the report does not say so, the tipped minimum has not risen in 22 years.

 “A worker supporting only herself would have to put in 93 hours a week at the federal minimum wage to make ends meet, and a tipped worker could have to work more hours than there are in a week to support herself if tips aren’t enough to make up the difference,” it says.

In Hawaii, that same worker would toil 110 hours, and in Virginia, 103, it adds.

– Working women in particular suffer from the low wages. Women are half of the nation’s 4.56 million retail salespeople and their median wage is $10.29 an hour. One third of the retail salespeople are low-wage earners. And 97 percent of the 582,000 nation’s child care workers are female. Their median wage is $9.48 hourly. Only 5 percent of the nation’s 3.13 million fast-food workers earned a living wage, and “virtually none of them” were people of color, the report notes. Their median wage is $8.85 hourly,

– Tipped and fast food workers not only earn a lot less, but they’re more likely to suffer wage theft, putting them even farther from a living wage than they already are. “In compliance sweep by the U.S. Department of Labor from 2010-2012, 83.8 percent of investigated restaurants had some type of violation. Similarly, a 2008 survey found that 30 percent of workers in the sample were not even paid the tipped worker minimum wage, and 12 percent reported that employers or supervisors stole their tips,” the report notes.

For more than a dozen states, the report calculated living expenses for single adults, a single parent with a baby, a single parent with a baby and an elementary-school age youngster and a two-parent, two-child family. In each case, the living wage the family would need far outstrips that state’s minimum wage, even in states with minimums above $7.25 hourly.

In Illinois, for example, the living wage for a single adult would be $16.93 hourly, double the state’s minimum ($8.25) and above the proposed minimum in Chicago. The single working Illinois adult would need to gross $2,934 monthly, at the $16.93 rate, to earn a living wage.

The adult Illinois worker would spend $752 on housing and utilities, $625 on transportation, just under $500 on federal, state and local taxes, $438 on clothing and household goods and $209 on food. The report assumes the worker could sock $243 away in savings.

“The reality is that we live less than a paycheck-to-paycheck life,” Stacy Ellis, a 42-year-old single mother of several kids and a veteran fast-food worker in Albany, N.Y., told the report’s authors. “I make $8.75 an hour and we are barely surviving,” even though she loves interacting with her customers at McDonald’s.

“My wages only pay for our living expenses – not shampoo, or a pair of shoes or a school field trip – and there is no way to get ahead…My kids are forced to go without normal things kids need. My youngest has never had new clothes, just for her. She gets hand-me- downs from her older siblings, and a lot of the time they are from my 10-year-old son.

“It isn’t right. I work hard, and I want to be able to provide for my own family without assistance – so when I work hard, I can see the benefit of that work. Everyone who works deserves a living wage, and the opportunity to do better for themselves and their family.”

Ellis said she is re-enrolled in college to finish a degree and become a social worker to help at-risk youth. “If I made $15 an hour, I could take care of my family’s needs, finish school, and build a stronger future that doesn’t require public assistance,” she points out.

For her, the report calculated, even $15 is not enough. For a single adult in New York, $19.90 is a living wage. For a single mom with two kids, it’s almost double that ($38.13).

Photo: Fight for 15 demonstration in Los Angeles.   |  Answer Coalition.org


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of the People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C.   Gruenberg has been editor-in-chief of PAI since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jarvis bureau chief for the Middletown NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for the Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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