State-level laws provide an opportunity to increase minimum wage

By Emma Reilly

Elm Staff Writer

Since the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 2009, the federal minimum wage in the United States has been $7.25. This figure dictates the lowest hourly wages employers can legally pay their employees in the U.S.

“In 2018, 1.7 million workers…earned wages at or below the federal minimum wage,” a USAFacts analysis said.

Individual states can pass their own minimum wage legislation as well. Each state can set minimum wage at any amount — at, above, or even below the national figure, according to Debt.org’s Al Krulick.

Variations between federal and state minimum wage provisions significantly complicates the issue. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Consolidated Minimum Wage Table” for 2020, 29 states and Washington, D.C. require wages above the federal minimum. In 16 states, minimum wage is equal to that put in place by the FLSA. Only five states do not have state-specific minimum wage laws.

Meanwhile, opposing perspectives on minimum wage increases have become especially contentious. 

While those against increasing minimums believe it may force employers to fire workers, supporters of the initiative at both the state and federal level argue that current minimums fail to provide employees with adequate funds to uphold their livelihood.

“A 2012 study by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition … found that in every state, an individual would have to work at least 63 hours a week at minimum wage to afford rent,” Krulick said.

Many Americans believe that a higher minimum wage would combat this problem and allow the average American worker to better support themselves and their families.

“Opponents…contend that a considerably higher minimum wage would strain small businesses…Republican lawmakers, in particular, have long fought against raising federal and state minimums,” Andrew Soergel with U.S. News said.

These differences have become even more striking as the 2020 presidential election approaches.

President Donald Trump’s own arguments against increasing the federal minimum are similar to those noted by Soergel. 

“Trump asserted [at the Oct. 22 presidential debate] that increasing the minimum wage would crush small businesses, many of which are already struggling as a result of the pandemic,” NBC’s Martha White said.

While Trump and many other Republican politicians oppose raising the federal minimum, former Vice President Joe Biden is fighting “to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a move that would bump paychecks for millions of low-wage workers hit hard by the pandemic,” Business Insider’s Joseph Zeballos-Roig said.

Popular support seems to be in favor of Biden’s initiative.

According to state-level trends recorded by the National Conference of State Legislators, state minimum wages are increasing nationwide in response to pressures from constituents. In 2017, 19 states raised their state-specific minimum wages. This continued with 18 states in both 2018 and 2019, and 21 states in January 2020.

Although state legislators have been able to make significant headway, it is unlikely that Biden, if elected, will be able to obtain the same level of success at the federal level.

“Given the partisan split between the House and Senate, [the $7.25 minimum] seems destined to remain for the foreseeable future,” Drew DeSilver with Pew Research Center said. 

Continuing to allow individual states to pass wage legislation will sustain the trend toward increasing minimums. State-specific minimum wage provisions will also make way for progress despite deep party divisions at the federal level.

“… the higher-wage crowd has made inroads in GOP strongholds such as Arkansas and South Dakota — each of which saw state-level minimums climb on the first day of 2020,” Soergel said.

Nationwide minimum wage increases gradually undertaken at the state level will cater to the individual needs and circumstances of each state and their populations without the hinderance of partisan blockades.

Workers will be guaranteed to get the wages they deserve — the caveat that employees must be granted the higher of the two set minimums ensures it. No matter how the presidential election plays out, state legislators will be able to take steps towards higher minimum wages nationwide in order to strengthen the financial foundation of thousands of working Americans.

Featured Photo caption: Dispute over whether minimum wage should be decided at the state or federal level has recently grown more contentious. Photo by Izze Rios.

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