Why should people in the richest country on Earth toil long hours for wages that would make Charles Dickens recoil in horror? A lot of Americans have been wondering the same thing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2012, 1.57 million Americans earned the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Millions more were just above that figure, and plenty actually ended up below it. Over 60 percent of the minimum wage earners in 2012 were in retail, or in leisure and hospitality, which includes hotels and restaurants. If we raise the minimum wage, an estimated 28 million will get a direct or indirect benefit, because when the wage goes up bosses often raise the wages of workers hovering right above the new minimum. So one in five American workers will take more money home. It’s not a silver bullet — employers will still try to avoid requirements by hiring contract workers and other tactics, and some workers will still end up exempt. But it’s a start.
As the fight for a raise in the minimum wage heats up, with Democrats pushing hard in 2014, here’s a look at some of the hard-working people who don’t deserve poverty as the reward of an honest day’s work.
1. Airport workers: Union busting and shrinking public investment have taken their toll on America’s airport employees. LaGuardia Airport was built as a New Deal WPA project aimed at restoring hope and dignity to American workers (and boosting the economy in the process). But today, 12,000 airport workers at LaGuardia make a miserable $8 an hour as cabin cleaners. They work at or near the minimum wage with zero health benefits, as do many other cleaners,baggage handlers and other airport workers across the country.
2. Big-box store employees: Millions toil in the aisles of Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and other giant retailers for wages set at or near minimum wage. When you factor in rampant wage theft and other predatory practices, many make even less. That’s why in recent years, many cities such as Washington DC have taken action to demand that they raise wages while the federal government gets its act together. Home Depot, whose founder, Ken Langone, is among the most reactionary capitalists in America, loses no opportunity to voice his opposition to paying workers a living wage. His net worth is $2.1 billion. Does that make him a maker or a taker?
3. Casino workers: Pity the poor suckers losing money at the blackjack table, but pity the dealer, too. Many casino jobs, like dealers and drink servers, are either minimum wage or just a notch above, and the people doing them often have to put up with drunk, grabby customers, long hours on their feet and mushroom clouds of smoke. Often these employees depend on tips to support their livelihoods, but those working at the lower-end facilities have a hard time making ends meet even with tipping customers. In some states, like casino-packed Louisiana, these tipped workers can be paid as low as $2.13 per hour. That’s hardly a winning number.
4. Fast-food workers: You’re eating, but the person ringing up your order may be working for near-starvation wages. The median income of a non-managerial fast-food worker is a mere $8.94 an hour. The average age is 28, a far cry from the burger-flipping teen that living wage opponents pretend is the norm. About a quarter of these workers have children to support. More than half are female. The public cost of workers who can’t afford healthcare, or even food to feed their families, is enormous: nearly $7 billion a year.