Union activist Terrence Wise recalls being laughed at when he began pushing for a national $15 per hour minimum wage almost a decade ago. Nearly a year into the pandemic, the idea isn’t so funny.
The coronavirus has renewed focus on challenges facing hourly employees who have continued working in grocery stores, gas stations and other in-person locations even as much of the workforce has shifted to virtual environments.
President Joe Biden has responded by including a provision in the massive pandemic relief bill that would more than double the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $15 per hour.
But the effort is facing an unexpected roadblock — Biden himself.
The president seemingly has undermined the push to raise the minimum wage by acknowledging its dim prospects in Congress, where it faces political opposition and procedural hurdles.
That’s frustrating to activists such as Wise — a 41-year-old department manager at a McDonald’s in Kansas City and a national leader of Fight for 15, an organized labor movement — who worry their victory is being snatched away despite an administration that’s otherwise an outspoken ally.
But as a 36-year veteran of the Senate, Biden is particularly attuned to the political dynamics on Capitol Hill and can be blunt in his assessments.
“I don’t think it’s going to survive,” Biden recently told CBS News, referring to the minimum wage hike.
With the Senate evenly divided, the proposal doesn’t have the 60 votes needed to make it to the floor on its own. Democrats could use an arcane budgetary procedure that would attach the minimum wage to the pandemic response bill and allow it to pass with a simple majority vote.
But even that’s not easy. Some moderate Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, have expressed either outright opposition to the hike or said it shouldn’t be included in the pandemic legislation.
The Senate’s parliamentarian may further complicate things with a ruling that the minimum wage measure can’t be included in the pandemic bill.
For now, the measure’s most progressive Senate backers aren’t openly pressuring Biden to step up his campaign for a higher minimum wage.
Bernie Sanders, Senate Budget Committee chairman, has said he’s largely focused on winning approval from the parliamentarian to tack the provision onto the pandemic bill.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has only tweeted that Democrats should “right this wrong.”
Some activists, however, are encouraging Biden to be more aggressive.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, said Biden has a “mandate” to ensure the minimum wage increases, noting that minority Americans were “the first to go back to jobs, first to get infected, first to get sick, first to die” during the pandemic.
“We cannot be the last to get relief and the last to get treated and paid properly,” Barber said.
The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009, the longest stretch without an increase since its creation in 1938.
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When adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of the current $7.25 wage has declined more than a dollar in the last 11-plus years.