Minimum wage vote pleases Lawrence workers

U.S. House passes legislation increasing hourly pay to $7.25; measure now goes to Senate

Joey McDonald, who works at Rudy’s Pizzeria, makes $6 an hour, just a handful of change more than the cost of the restaurant’s daily special of a slice, drink and salad.

It’s no wonder he finds it hard to make ends meet.

But under legislation passed Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representatives, McDonald would receive a 20 percent pay increase.

The Democratic-controlled House voted to increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25 in three phases during the next 26 months. The vote was 315-116, with more than 80 Republicans joining Democrats to pass it.

The measure now goes to the Senate, which is expected to move quickly – perhaps in the next few weeks.

Those affected

McDonald, a Johnson County Community College student, works to pay for his tuition and cost of living. The $1.25 increase would amount to an extra $50 a week or $2,600 a year for the full-time worker. McDonald said he has to make tough financial choices, such as whether to pay his electricity bill or make a late payment.

“Sometimes you get enough, and other times you have to wait (to pay a bill). Sometimes you have to wait a couple nights for the extra tips,” McDonald said.

Caterina Benalcazar, a barista at La Prima Tazza, 638 Mass., doesn’t think of the proposed increase as a raise, but rather as a cost-of-living adjustment. With the increase in inflation and prices, she said it’s only fair that workers see a wage increase.

Benalcazar, a Kansas University student who makes about $7.25 an hour, rejects the argument that those making minimum wage are often students or others who receive substantial financial support.

“You can’t pigeon-hole students as a group,” she said. “Most students are pretty hard-working and deserving of an increase.”

About the bill

The legislation calls for a 70-cent increase 60 days after the bill becomes law. The other 70-cent increases would take place one and two years later. The federal minimum wage was last increased in 1997 from $4.75 to $5.15.

U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., said the increase is long overdue. She dismissed concerns that raising the minimum wage could cost jobs. U.S. Reps. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Dennis Moore, D-Kan., joined Boyda in supporting the legislation. U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., was the only state representative to oppose the legislation.

In remarks on the House floor, Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said an estimated 5.6 million Americans making less than $7.25 would be directly affected by the increase, while another 7.3 million would benefit indirectly.

The federal minimum wage law covers virtually all Americans. The Fair Labor Standards Act extends federal minimum protection to employees of any company doing at least $500,000 in business or engaging in any sort of interstate commerce.

In Kansas, of the 1.4 million individuals in the labor force, only 19,000 are not covered by the federal minimum wage, according to Beth Martino, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Labor. Those employees are covered by Kansas state minimum wage, which is $2.65 per hour.

Employers weigh in

Business owners were mixed in their reaction to the proposed increase.

Monica Bowers, co-owner of Penny Annie’s candy store, 845 Mass., said the proposed increase would be rough on small businesses.

“I would be against it – that much of a raise, at least,” she said.

Bowers said she’d probably be forced to raise prices in order to pay for the raises – something she’d rather not do.

“I pay close to $7, but there are some people who are part-time who make close to the minimum,” she said.

Pat Kehde, co-owner of The Raven Bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St., is generally in favor of the increase. She said that because of the store’s desire to keep employees, it already paid above the level that the new law would require.

“I don’t think it will affect us,” she said. “We like to have good people who work for us, and we think they deserve a decent wage.”

A recent Newsweek poll shows 89 percent of Americans support increasing the minimum wage.

Democratic agenda

The minimum wage bill is the second of six measures that Democrats intend to pass in the first two weeks of the new Congress. Legislation aimed at making the nation safer from terrorist attacks passed easily on Wednesday. The agenda for today includes a measure to permit expanded federally funded embryonic stem cell research, a bill Bush has threatened to veto.
On Friday, the House is expected to pass legislation directing the administration to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices on prescription drugs for Medicare recipients. Republicans said Wednesday they believed Bush would veto that bill, as well, if it reached his desk as drafted.
The remaining measures on the early Democratic agenda would cut the interest rate on student loans and raise taxes on energy companies to pay for an effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil.