Es­sen­tial work­ers de­serve es­sen­tial wages

The Pak Banker - - FRONT PAGE -

Amer­ica's min­i­mum wage and low-wage work­ers haven't re­ceived a raise in over a decade - even as we cel­e­brate them as es­sen­tial.

COVID-19 threat­ens our hourly work­force from ev­ery an­gle. Low-wage work­ers have been the hard­est hit by COVID-19 job losses. Their pur­chas­ing power has de­creased, and the in­fla­tion­ary ef­fect of nec­es­sary gov­ern­ment spend­ing and bor­row­ing to fight the virus may lower it fur­ther. Mil­lions of un­em­ployed Amer­i­cans are watch­ing their util­ity, rent and credit card bills bal­loon, and don't have a way of pay­ing when the rent or mort­gage fi­nally comes due.

Low-wage work­ers are of­ten among the most likely to con­tract the virus, and both our work­places and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion are fail­ing them by not meet­ing and en­forc­ing ad­e­quate safety stan­dards.

Enough is enough: our es­sen­tial work­ers de­serve es­sen­tial wages, and the easi­est way to do that is by in­creas­ing the min­i­mum wage.

I've long been a be­liever that our work­ers de­serve a raise. When I was a state leg­is­la­tor in North Carolina, I led the bill that gave our state its last min­i­mum wage in­crease. Last year, I voted for the Raise the Wage Act, which the Se­nate should bring to the floor for a vote im­me­di­ately.

The Raise the Wage Act would grad­u­ally in­crease the fed­eral min­i­mum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour by 2025, and it phases out the sub­min­i­mum wage for tipped work­ers, youth work­ers and Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties. The need for a higher wage was ev­i­dent then: ac­cord­ing to pre-COVID em­ploy­ment num­bers, over 30 mil­lion work­ers, in­clud­ing 151,400 in my dis­trict alone, would ben­e­fit from a min­i­mum wage in­crease.

In the wake of the global pan­demic, the im­por­tance of higher wages for es­sen­tial work­ers should be self-ev­i­dent. A higher min­i­mum wage will close the wealth gap, help restart the econ­omy and give work­ers fair pay for the la­bor they pro­vide.

Dur­ing the pan­demic, we've seen the wealth gap grow. Bil­lion­aires have ben­e­fited from a stock mar­ket rally while mil­lions on the other end of the spec­trum have lost jobs. Un­em­ploy­ment help has been un­even; in some states, like mine, the base un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fit is so low as to im­pov­er­ish job seek­ers. The ben­e­fits aren't enough for them to pay their cur­rent bills, much less the bal­loon pay­ments loom­ing on the hori­zon.

Work­ers are go­ing to need all the help they can get to dig out of the fi­nan­cial hole caused by COVID-19. In ad­di­tion to con­tin­ued un­em­ploy­ment as­sis­tance and eco­nomic stim­u­lus pay­ments, rais­ing the min­i­mum wage will help our work­force re­cover from the great­est health and eco­nomic cri­sis of our life­times. Our coun­try can­not trap an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of work­ers in debt and poverty; to do so would fore­close on the prom­ise of ev­ery­thing we be­lieve in as Amer­i­cans.

The Raise the Wage Act will lift 1.3 mil­lion of our fel­low cit­i­zens out of poverty, in­clud­ing 600,000 chil­dren. As a 40-year ed­u­ca­tor, child poverty and child hunger has al­ways been at the fore­front of my mind. In Char­lotte and Meck­len­burg County, where I live, there are 23 schools with food pantries for food-in­se­cure stu­dents and fam­i­lies - and all of them were es­tab­lished be­fore COVID-19.

Ad­di­tion­ally, we al­ready have thou­sands of home­less and hous­ing-in­se­cure stu­dents in our school dis­trict alone. I can­not fathom the con­se­quences of fail­ing to act, let­ting even more chil­dren fall into poverty due to the pan­demic, es­pe­cially as par­ents, teach­ers and stu­dents face the chal­lenge of go­ing to school dur­ing COVID-19.

Rais­ing the wage will not only lift fam­i­lies out of poverty, it will help restart our econ­omy. In this time of eco­nomic un­cer­tainty, a boost to wages will in­crease con­sumer con­fi­dence and con­sumer spend­ing, both of which have lagged due to the pan­demic. The tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tive ar­gu­ment that rais­ing the min­i­mum wage will de­crease the num­ber of avail­able jobs rings hol­low given how many jobs will be cre­ated as we leave the pan­demic.

Fi­nally, we have a moral obli­ga­tion to ac­cu­rately value the la­bor of low-wage work­ers. If we call work­ers es­sen­tial in word but not in deed - how we com­pen­sate these work­ers - what good is the ti­tle "es­sen­tial?" These work­ers are tak­ing risks above and be­yond what we have asked of oth­ers. From health care he­roes and first re­spon­ders to bus driv­ers and re­tail work­ers, the la­bor mar­ket has not treated our hourly work­ers fairly. It's time to change that.

Rais­ing the wage is key to solv­ing the in­equity of the gen­der pay gap for women and es­pe­cially women of color. Ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, this bill will pro­vide over 23 mil­lion women - many of whom are the pri­mary bread­win­ners in their house­holds - with a raise. As some­one whose mother cleaned houses so I could go to col­lege, I know how hard low-wage earn­ing women work. They de­serve equal pay for equal work, too.

Es­sen­tial work­ers de­serve es­sen­tial wages. Any­thing less threat­ens the very fab­ric of our coun­try, and the prom­ise of the Amer­i­can dream. The Se­nate should take up and pass the Raise the Wage Act now.

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