Fran Marion thinks often about her former co-worker Mike. They worked at Popeyes together five years ago, and he urged her to join the movement for a $15 minimum wage. Mike died at age 32 after struggles with depression and substance abuse, and Marion says low pay and poor benefits in the fast-food industry played a role.
“This is life or death for us,” said Marion, who makes $10.75 an hour working at McDonald’s in Kansas City, Mo. “These things are happening because we can’t afford health care. We can’t get the medicine we need.”
On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted on a bill to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 by 2025. The bill passed the Democratically controlled House but is expected to fail in the GOP-led Senate.
Since joining the “Fight for $15″ campaign in 2015, Marion has spoken at rallies, marched through Kansas City and joined hundreds of others in blocking an intersection outside a McDonald’s — her first act of civil disobedience.
She compared watching the House vote Thursday to the Super Bowl when your team is “up by one point and it’s anybody’s game.” While she knows the bill will almost certainly die in the Senate, she thinks low-wage workers are winning the national debate.
“We get a lot of support. People honk when we are out there on the street,” said Marion. She believes the rallies in recent years have helped “open the eyes” of corporate leaders.
About 55 percent of the country supports raising the minimum wage to $15, according to a poll by the Hill, and large companies such as Amazon and Target have raised or are in the process of raising their starting pay to at least $15.
Many business groups say that raising the minimum wage to that level across the country will cause layoffs and business closures. They point to a report this month from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that predicted an increase akin to what’s in the House bill would cause 1.3 million job losses.
“A $15 minimum wage is not supported by the economic conditions and the business fundamentals in the country,” said Neil Bradley, chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Bradley says what might be right in San Francisco, where living costs are high, is not necessarily appropriate across the entire country. Some Democrats, including Rep. Terri A. Sewell of Alabama, agree and have tried to push for a more modest increase or a minimum wage that varies across the country.
President Trump’s top economic adviser called a federal minimum wage a “terrible idea” last year. The Job Creators Network, a grass-roots conservative group, condemned the House bill, calling it “outrageous.”
The U.S. Chamber says it supports raising the minimum wage to about $10 an hour, an amount that would be easier for small businesses to absorb and that the Congressional Budget Office predicted would not cause any job losses.
The minimum wage has not been raised in a decade, the longest stretch without an increase since the minimum wage was enacted in the late 1930s. President Barack Obama tried but failed to lift it to $12.
Half of U.S. jobs pay less than $18.58 an hour, according to Labor Department data, and more than a third pay less than $15. Numerous states and cities have increased the minimum wage above the federal level, but the $7.25 floor still applies in 19 states.
For Marion, the difference would be huge. She and her two teenage children live in an apartment where she says the water doesn’t work and her landlord won’t fix it. At times they have been homeless, sleeping on the couches of friends.
“Due to the wages I’m making, the only type of landlord I can afford are what you would call a slumlord,” she said. “Anything else is out of my pay grade.”
Marion, 39, says she is often asked why she doesn’t get a better job. She has worked a second job at times as a janitor and says she has not been able to find anything other than low-wage jobs. She moved from Omaha to Kansas City after the Great Recession in search of better opportunities for her children.
Voters in Missouri overwhelmingly approved a gradual increase of the state’s $7.85 an hour minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2023. But Marion says that does little to help her pay the bills now or alleviate the strain of telling her son there isn’t money to buy him new shoes for school in the fall.
Marion is a high school graduate and has stressed to her children to aim higher. Her daughter recently graduated from high school with honors and has joined the strike line with her mother.
“I instilled in my kids that the sky is the limit,” Marion says. “I hope they don’t have to struggle the way they have seen me struggle.”