More, More, More: Why $15 Per Hour Still Not Enough for Retail Workers in NY, California, Anywhere

While many Americans are celebrating filing their annual income tax returns or requesting extensions, thousands of workers across the nation are fighting for a federal minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. Pre-tax day protests swept across 300 cities recently highlighting the need for workers in this country to earn higher wages.

The ongoing “Fight for $15 an hour” push by labor movement activists and some legislators has recently resulted in positive change on both coasts, in New York and California for laws that will enforce the minimum wage at $15. San Francisco and Seattle are also fighting to implement a $15 minimum wage.

Certainly, some argue that the recent $15 an hour increase will cut jobs and raise the prices of goods. But there is not enough evidence of this claim. Those critics are focused on arguing about what could be and not the issues the economy is actually facing because of the current abysmal minimum wage.

The minimum wage today perpetuates workers’ need to access public assistance. About 53 percent of all retail workers who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage receive public assistance. That is because these wages are not just low, but poverty wages. Taxpayers subsidize large retail corporations who earn billions in revenue yet pay a majority of their workforce poverty wages.

Retail is one of the fastest growth sectors in the economy pushing the most low-income jobs and it is a sector greatly affected by these hourly wage policies.

In the retail sector alone in this country, there will be more than 555,000 workers faced with the low wage issues we see now, even after an increase in 2018.

It is time to capitalize on the moment and demand a living wage that will lift more than 3.2 million workers out of poverty and into a manageable working life. Ensuring that workers can not only get by but thrive on the wages they earn is more than a symbolic gesture, and one that companies and lawmakers need to make.

Yes, a victory for a wage increase should be celebrated and acknowledged. But movement leaders need a strategy to ensure wage increases are tied to workers’ cost of living and not just the cost of a win.

The minimum wage increase per hour is an improvement, but will do little to improve the lives of low wage workers in many sectors. The proposed New York state wage increases vary throughout the state, but low-income workers in New York City will see a $15 an hour increase by 2018. Some other areas will see that wage in 2021 and workers for the rest of the state will see only $12.50 per hour wages.

In New York City the living wage for a single person without care giving responsibilities is about $14.30 per hour. For a single person with children, that living wage nearly doubles to $27.44. But in neither scenario is $15 an hour earned in 2018 sufficient. That will not cover workers basic needs of food, clothing and shelter.

The Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator estimated a single adult living in New York City in 2021 will need to earn $24.38 to meet basic needs. Again, that amount almost doubles for a single parent with one child.

Additionally, in the last five years the cost of living has increased. If there are further increases to the cost of living, low-wage workers will not only be back in poverty wages but fighting a more difficult battle with legislators who oppose wage increases because of the recent win.

Why aren’t more activists in the movement asking for a real living wage now?

In low wage sectors such as retail, workers already feel the crunch of working precarious schedules. Low wage workers need a living wage and they need one now. A minimum wage increase in the retail industry will predominantly affect women and people of color. More than half, or 61 percent of women in retail, along with 27 percent of struggling parents and 47 percent of people of color will receive higher wages from the increase.

The new laws are a step forward, but once again low-wage workers will be back in the low-wage bracket.

Anika Campbell is the executive director of the Center for Frontline Retail and a former retail worker. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Ms. Foundation through The OpEd Project.