It started in 2012 with a group of protesters outside a McDonald’s calling for a minimum wage of $ 15 – an idea that even many liberal lawmakers viewed as fancy. In the years since then, their struggle has grown in importance across the country, including conservative states with low union membership and generally weak labor laws.
On Friday, 20 states and 32 cities and counties will raise their minimum wages. In 27 of those places, the lower wage limit will hit or exceed $ 15 an hour, according to a National Employment Law Project report released Thursday that supports minimum wage increases.
The strength of the movement – an electoral move to increase the Florida minimum wage to $ 15 by 2026, which was passed in November – could once again put pressure on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $ 7.25 an hour, elected since 2009 Joseph R. Biden Jr. has endorsed $ 15 an hour at the federal level and other working group changes, such as ending the practice of lower minimum wages for workers such as restaurant workers who receive tips.
But even without action by Congress, labor activists said they would continue their campaign at the state and local levels. By 2026, 42 percent of Americans will be Work in a location with a minimum wage of at least $ 15 an hour. This is based on an estimate by the Economic Policy Institute given in the NELP report.
“These record increases in wages in states are the result of years of advocacy from workers and years of marching in the streets and organizing their peers and their communities,” said Yannet Lathrop, researcher and policy analyst for the group.
Wage rates rise as workers struggle in a recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic that has left millions of people unemployed.
“The Covid crisis has really exacerbated inequalities in society,” said Greg Daco, chief US economist for Oxford Economics. “This has given more strength to these movements that want to make sure everyone benefits from a strong job market in the form of sustainable salaries.”
Workers during the pandemic were exposed to vacations, wage cuts and working hours. Low-wage service workers have not been able to work from home, and the customer-centric nature of their work puts them at higher risk of contracting the virus. Many retailers gave workers wage increases – or “hero wages” – at the start of the pandemic to quietly end the practice over the summer, although the virus continued to rise in many states.
“The coronavirus pandemic has driven many working families into deep poverty,” said Anthony Advincula, communications director at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit focused on improving wages and working conditions. “This increase in the minimum wage will be a tremendously welcome boost for low-wage workers, especially in the hospitality industry.”
Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, said the labor movement would make it a priority in 2021 to get even more workers to $ 15 an hour or more.
“There are millions more workers who need more money in their pockets,” she said, adding that the election of Mr. Biden and elected Vice President Kamala Harris would intensify efforts. “We have an incredible opportunity.”
Because many of the hourly service workers are Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian, people of color can benefit most from minimum wage increases. A 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that workers of color were far more likely to receive poverty-level wages than white workers.
“It is the most dramatic act of creating racial equality,” said Ms. Henry.
Some economists say raising the minimum wage will benefit the economy and could be an important part of the recovery from the pandemic recession. This is in part because lower-income workers typically spend most of the money they make and that spending is mostly made where they live and work.
Kate Bahn, director of labor policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, said post-2007-09 recession growth was anemic for years as wages stagnated and the labor market slowly found its way back.
“It has been widely recognized that the weak wage growth we have seen over the past 30 years and since the Great Recession reflects structural imbalances in the economy and structural inequality,” said Ms. Bahn.
Many corporate groups counter that an increase in the minimum wage will harm small businesses already affected by the pandemic. According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 110,000 restaurants closed permanently or long-term during the pandemic.
An increase in the minimum wage could lead employers to lay off some workers in order to pay others more, said David Neumark, an economics professor at the University of California at Irvine.
“There is a lot of research that suggests that raising the minimum wage can lead to job losses,” he said. “Many workers are being helped, but some are injured.”
A 2019 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that a minimum wage of $ 15 would raise wages for 17 million workers who earned less than that and potentially another 10 million workers who made a little more. According to the study’s median estimate, 1.3 million other workers would lose their jobs.
In New York, the Senate Republicans had urged Democrat Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to stop the increases that came into force on Thursday on the grounds that they could be the “last straw” for some small businesses.
While raising the minimum wage above a certain point could result in job losses, Ms. Bahn of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth argued, “We are a long way from that point.”
Economic research has shown that recent minimum wage increases have not resulted in huge job losses. In a 2019 study, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that wages for recreational and hospitality workers in the boroughs of New York bordering Pennsylvania that had a lower minimum had risen sharply while employment growth continued . In many cases, higher minimum wages are introduced over several years to give companies time to adjust.
Regardless of whether there is federal action, more state electoral initiatives will seek to raise the minimum wage, said Arindrajit Dube, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Basically, people think this is a question of fairness,” said Dube. “There is widespread support for the idea that people who work should be paid a living wage.”
Jeanna Smialek contributed to the reporting.