On the ground: What life is like at minimum wage in Washington

When you earn minimum wage, this is a serious pay cut.

Despite sound economic research showing that good base wages have positive effects on businesses, workers and the economy, attacks on Washington’s minimum wage surface year after year – 2012 was no exception.

On January 31, the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee heard testimony on several bills that would cut the paychecks of Washington’s lowest-wage workers. Representative Condotta, who introduced the bills, noted that he doesn’t have empirical evidence to support them but rather, “on the ground” experience: “We can talk about theories and we can listen to all the think tanks talk about what they have to say – I’m on the ground.”

It’s not a big surprise to see minimum wage detractors fail to acknowledge research that undermines their arguments. But it is frustrating to see them ignore the real “on the ground” struggles of people trying to get by on the minimum wage – like the people who came forward to share their stories at Tuesday’s hearing:

  • A single mom of two children testified, “it is nearly impossible to make ends meet on minimum wage. I felt like I was constantly running and never getting ahead…I ended up losing my apartment. We have been living in homelessness and transitional shelters ever since.”
  • A server from Sea-Tac Airport said, “we [restaurant employees] work so hard, so tirelessly. After I’ve paid for my tip allocations, for my taxes, my medical insurance and my union dues, I am literally walking home with $60 every two weeks. That is my paycheck. These workers need more. We don’t need less.”
  • A hotel worker shared, “I don’t know anyone working for minimum wage, receiving gratuities or not, that’s not struggling to pay their mortgages, their medical bills, put food on their tables. No one I know could tolerate a significant wage cut without suffering.”
  • A server and bartender in Centralia explained how a $1.79 reduction in minimum wage would affect his household budget: “It would take away 3 months worth of my mortgage payments, hinder my ability to pay my insurance and my wife’s medical bills. Every day that I go to work is a gamble of how much money I’ll make. One thing that I’ve always been able to depend on is my base hourly rate. My tips are not a guarantee. It is up to my employer to pay my base wages.”

Not a single person who actually works a minimum wage job testified in support of Rep. Condotta’s bills. A representative from SEIU 775 summed up the comments of those in opposition to the bills this way: “Some may claim these bills are reforms aimed at helping our state’s ailing economy. They are, in fact, an attack on the lowest paid workers in our state that will damage our economic recovery.”

Washington’s strong minimum wage ensures some low-wage workers can keep themselves out of poverty with full-time work. But many others are offered only part-time hours, or have to support a family with their earnings. Here’s some recent research about the minimum wage:

  • In response to an Illinois bill that would incrementally increase the minimum wage to $10.65 by 2014, the Economic Policy Institute  summarized economic research on the effect of minimum wage on workers, businesses and the economy.
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