Could $15 minimum wage be getting closer?

Some companies are raising wages -- but is it enough?
Big Companies Hike Minimum Wage_00001204

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Some companies are raising wages -- but is it enough? 02:05

Story highlights

  • Christine Owens and Yannet Lathrop: Minimum wage discussion has shifted
  • Tilt toward low paying jobs is holding back U.S. economy, they say

Christine Owens is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project. Yannet Lathrop is a policy researcher with the National Employment Law Project. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)Over the past two years, the national conversation around raising the minimum wage has shifted drastically.

In 2013, President Barack Obama was calling for just a $9 minimum wage. Many state proposals were in the same range. Last month, the president announced his "unconditional support" for the Congressional Democrats' new legislation, spearheaded by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, calling for raising the wage to $12 by 2020 -- a 33% boost over the President's 2013 proposal. And across the country from Maine to Colorado to California, states are proposing similar increases to $12-$13 or more -- with some cities raising the wage as high as $15.
What happened? The economy's tilt toward low paying jobs, workers in the streets calling for a $15 minimum wage, and growing recognition that low wages are holding our economy back have shifted public opinion decisively in favor of more meaningful increases in the minimum wage. A January 2015 Peter Hart poll showed that three in four Americans (including 53% of Republicans and 73% of independents) support raising the federal minimum wage to more than $12. Growing numbers of major employers have also announced action to raise pay for workers at the bottom, citing the bottom-line business benefits of a better paid and motivated workforce.
    Responding to this movement, Congressional Democrats, led by Sen. Murray and Rep. Scott, have upped the ante with last month's introduction of the Raise the Wage Act of 2015, which would raise the wage to $12 by 2020. Their proposal would raise pay for more than one in four of America's workers -- a total of 38 million, and 10 million more than the Democrats' previous $10.10 proposal. The proposal reflects the first time the Democrats' have called for fully restoring the minimum wage to its historic high level of 45 years ago -- an era when it raised pay broadly across the bottom of the economy, and the nation enjoyed strong growth and low unemployment.
    In another historic step, the Raise the Wage Act for the first time calls for gradually eliminating altogether the much-criticized subminimum tipped wage, which has been frozen at a meager $2.13 for over 20 years, and beginning in 2021, automatically adjusting the new wage rate to keep pace with the growth in median wages, so that the benefits of growth are shared with workers across the economy.
    The impact of the bolder proposal for America's workforce would be widely felt. According to recent estimates by the Economic Policy Institute, the new wage rate of $12 per hour will boost earnings for some 10 million parents, 21 million women and nearly 18 million workers of color.
    In light of the rapidly shifting national environment, here's a prediction for the next 18 months: Last month's federal $12 wage proposal will become the new floor in the national minimum wage debate. Presidential hopefuls or candidates for other offices seeking to address wages and inequality will no longer be able to call for more modest action without looking out of step with the national progressive momentum. Instead, $12 to $15 will define the new range of conversation for action on the minimum wage in the run up to the 2016 election.
    Much of this debate will be among Democrats and those vying for the mantle of progressive leadership. But what about Republicans, some of whom call for not raising but eliminating the federal minimum wage altogether? Although the new $12 federal bill is the Congressional Democrats' new benchmark, Republicans would be well served, as GOP strategists and media from Haley Barbour to Bill O'Reilly have urged, to recalibrate their opposition to one of the few concrete steps the government can take to improve the lives of tens of millions of struggling Americans. The minimum wage isn't a partisan issue for the public. While many Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures are dug in on the issue -- a testament to the clout of industry lobbyists in the post-Citizens United era -- voters of all stripes, including majorities of Republicans and three out of four Independents back strong action on the minimum wage.
    Last year's elections provided a vivid illustration of the bipartisan appeal of raising the minimum wage. In November 2014, voters in deep red states approved minimum wage ballot proposals by large margins. Growing numbers of states and localities are providing the action on minimum wages that voters want -- even some with Republican-controlled legislatures. The growing $15 movement has placed a national spotlight on the plight of low-wage workers who as a result have been making significant strides in winning pay raises for workers in fast food, retail, health care and other low-wage industries.
    Last month's action brings the federal minimum wage debate to $12 and higher, and will ratchet up the political risks for Republicans of stonewalling on the minimum wage. How candidates position themselves -- and whether more recognize that continuing to duck the need to improve wages and jobs for America's workers is a losing political proposition -- will tell a lot about their values. And it will also give a good indication about how the national conversation around the economy and inequality unfolds as we head toward the presidential election.