Pay our cashiers and cooks right, and stop waiting for Congress to raise minimum wage

Petula Dvorak
Columnist December 2, 2013

Our Town is showing the rest of the country how to do it right.

While federal Washington — the place I like to call This Town — refuses to do anything about the $7.25 minimum wage, local legislators in Maryland and D.C. are changing things on their own.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Last week the Montgomery County and Prince George’s County councils both voted to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 by 2017. And on Tuesday, the D.C. Council will consider a widely supported bill to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 by 2016. (Northern Virginia’s cities and counties don’t have the power to raise the minimum wage on their own, or they might consider it, too.)

Hello? Rest of America? Are you looking at us now?

This isn’t a bloviating, maddening government shutdown orchestrated by outsiders. It’s not a hypocritical freshman congressman buying cocaine in a local bar.

As states and grassroots organizations lead local efforts to raise the minimum wage, Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project examines the demographics of low-wage workers in the United States. (The Washington Post)

This is the Washington area showing federal Washington common sense in the face of a $7.25 minimum wage that hasn’t kept pace with the cost of living. The McDonald’s cashier who sold me the (still-scorching-hot) coffee Sunday night? She’s making less, adjusted for inflation, than she would have in 1963, when the minimum wage was $1.15 an hour.

And the bonus, if the D.C. Council passes this minimum wage increase? It will be doing the right thing by raising the hourly wage for all workers, instead of its previous misguided effort to target Wal-Mart and other big-box stores. Two of those Wal-Marts — on H Street NE and Georgia Avenue NW — open this week, providing hundreds of new jobs to people desperate for them. Now we just need to make sure that they, and all of D.C.’s workers, are paid a livable wage.

The federal minimum wage amounts to no more than $15,000 a year. Who, exactly, is supposed to live on that? No one can. And especially not in this part of the country, with its sky-high rents and housing prices.

And here’s the crazy part. The federal Washington guys, when they slam the idea of raising the minimum wage, say that it would hurt businesses and increase unemployment.

Not quite. Here’s what it does: It makes the government — and therefore you and I — subsidize businesses.

We are the ones helping make those big, corporate CEOs so rich. We — by funding food-stamp programs and housing subsidies with our tax dollars that most of these minimum-wage employees end up needing in order to survive — are making it easy for corporations to pay wages so disgracefully low that employees ran food drives for one another on Thanksgiving.

I go to the family homeless shelter at D.C. General quite a bit. And you may think it’s a place full of people who aren’t working.

Not necessarily. Single parents with small children who can’t afford child care, they are usually out of work. But quite a few of the people with older children living in the shelter have jobs. They just don’t earn enough as cashiers, line cooks or day-care workers to pay for rent, food and transportation.

And the minimum-wage worker’s life — which had been the foundation of the middle class 50 years ago when it was a living wage — is now a paycheck-to-paycheck mess held together with spiderwebs and luck.

A recent Gallup Poll showed that most Americans — closer to real life than most of the clowns in federal Washington — support raising the minimum wage.

Local governments are stepping up instead of waiting for Congress to act. The $11.50-an-hour wage passed by Montgomery and Prince George’s counties would be the highest in the country. California will have a $10 minimum wage by 2016, and New Jersey just voted for $8.25.

Now it’s the District's turn. New restaurants, bars, hotels, day spas and condo buildings seem to be opening in our back yard every day. Meanwhile, we’ve made it impossible for the people who wash the dishes, pour the drinks, filet the fish, make the beds and clean the halls to survive anywhere near their jobs.

I can’t wait to see Our Town make a bold step toward treating all of our workers with respect and dignity. It’s the right thing to do — now.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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