In 2016 I authored an article titled “Raise the Minimum Wage Now! With a Smart, Fair, Incremental and Regional Approach,” where I stated with regards to the federal minimum wage (emphasis added) that:
When a person working 40 hours a week can’t cover the basic costs of living, there’s something deeply wrong with our economic system. Paying workers fairly isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s what makes our communities and businesses thrive: happy employees mean lower turnover and higher productivity, and results in workers who make more and spend more, which puts money back into the economy, rather than force them to get by on public assistance programs…. We believe a multi-tiered regional approach based on local costs of living and purchasing power, phased in over time and benchmarked to inflation once fully implemented, is the fairest policy with the best chance of passing at the federal level.
With the incredible success of the movement to raise the minimum wage in both blue and red states in recent years, the national movement has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $15. I appreciate going for as high as we can get; but I’m concerned by the fact that the only states where we have been able to raise to this level have relatively high costs of living. A significant number of states that have also raised their minimum wages substantially, but not to $15, when accounting for regional cost of living differences, have in fact enacted minimum wages with similar buying power to states with $15 minimum wages (again as discussed in my blog linked above). Most of this progress has come thanks to citizen-initiated ballot measures, in red and blue states alike. From Missouri to Arkansas, voters have taken matters into their own hands and prioritized immediate, life-changing raises rather than waiting for $15/hour to become politically palatable.
My concern with insisting on $15 at the federal level for all states, is that we will miss the opportunity to actually raise the federal minimum wage at all with our slim window of democratic majorities, when we can do so in a way that is sensitive to local cost of living that will dramatically help Americans in every state to have equivalent buying power as if they were getting $15 in California and New York.
I’m all about going for as much as we can get, and if we can get $15 nationally then that would be awesome. It’s gratifying and exciting to see big box retailers and fast-food chains and other national businesses embrace higher wages starting at $15 across all states. However, the failure to bundle a $15 minimum wage into the Covid relief bill, shows that we can’t pass $15 through the Senate even with a slim democratic majority. Even if 7 of the 8 democratic senators that voted against it really are in favor of $15 in a stand-alone bill, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is staunchly opposed, representing a state that went for Trump by 40%—and we need his vote.
My hope is that we can be more strategic in our approach, and not waste the chance we have to implement a dramatic raise in the federal minimum wage for all Americans, that is tied to regional costs of living. $15 would be the minimum wage in more affluent higher cost of living areas but a lower minimum wage with equivalent buying power would be the case in lower-cost-of-living states, benchmarked against cost of living and purchasing power in a given area. This is going to be much more palatable to conservative democrats we need for passage, like Sen. Manchin of West Virginia. Crucially, we need to make sure the minimum wage rises with inflation and cost of living over time. We also need to eliminate the lower tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers.
What I would personally love to see, is for the MIT living wage calculator to set the minimum wage for all states, counties, and cities. The Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) that Dr. Bronner’s co-founded and I’m on the board of, takes the best of soil health, fair labor, and animal welfare criteria and bundles them into a single consumer facing standard. Within that standard there are bronze, silver, and gold level approaches to farm work. The gold level is set at at 110% of the MIT living wage calculator for one adult with no children; the extra 10% is for child care, elder care, whatever the case may be.
However, farmworkers do not receive time and a half for overtime like most American workers, nor paid breaks, being exempt from the Federal Labor Standards Act. This is a national travesty and amounts to racism against the predominantly Hispanic farmworker workforce in this country we rely on for the food we eat. California and Washington are the only states so far that are tackling this, taking a phased approach to paid overtime for farmworkers, where by 2022, 2024 and 2025, depending, farmworkers will be paid time and a half for hours worked in excess of 8 hours a day / 40 hours a week. I think it makes sense for the ROA to mandate time and half overtime nationwide for farmworkers, tracking California and Washington, and reset the living wage to 100% of the MIT Living Wage calculator for a single worker instead. This will reduce the insane overtime that farmworkers are often expected to work, while compensating them extra for overtime (as in most other professions) such that they come out ahead.
Farmers on their side are operating on razor thin margins, and it’s important in the ROA ecosystem that certified brands and partners go to market in long-term partnership with their farmers, making sure they are paying prices that enable farmers to take care of their land, animals, and workers in the right humane and fair way. It was disheartening to hear that Horizon Organic, who participated in the ROA pilot but did not earn certification (that takes a high bar approach to farmer, worker, and animal welfare), recently severed contracts with their long-standing dairy farming partners in the northeast in favor of seeking lower cost sources of milk.
A private high bar standard like ROA is a great example of what’s possible but is no substitute for federal policy that raises the minimum wage for all workers, and grants farmworkers paid overtime, so that we can all make ends meet on the income we receive in 21st century America.