The push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour got a big boost Tuesday when President-elect Joe Biden tweeted his support for the increase, noting that it was "long past time to raise the minimum wage, so hardworking people earn at least $15 an hour."
Biden's tweet comes a week after Georgia voters handed Democrats control of the U.S. Senate when they elected Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to Congress in runoff elections. Both candidates endorsed increasing the minimum wage while campaigning in December, and they join a growing number of progressive lawmakers who have been advocating for a $15 minimum wage for years.
The Democratically controlled House successfully voted to increase the minimum wage in 2019, but the proposition died in the GOP-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats have majorities in both chambers and will soon occupy the White House, legislative items such as a $15 minimum wage that seemed unlikely in December suddenly seem not only possible but probable.
The jump to $15 an hour would more than double the federal minimum wage, which currently stands at $7.25. It's been nearly 12 years since Congress last increased it — the longest stretch without an increase since the first national wage floor was enacted in 1938.
During those 12 years, low-wage earners have lost more than 17% of their purchasing power because of inflation, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.
"I think the public and legislators are starting to understand more and more that workers need higher wages," says Yannet Lathrop, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. "Workers have been organizing to push for more, and I think these are the fruits of their labor."
The federal minimum wage sets the floor for workers' compensation in the U.S., but individual states can set their baselines higher. In all, more than half the states have minimum wages higher than the national standard, and 20 require pay to be above $10 an hour, according to the Labor Department.
Smaller jurisdictions, including counties and municipalities, can also set their own minimum wages higher than the national or state levels through local ordinances.
No state currently has a minimum wage that exceeds $14 an hour, but several routinely increase their base wages as part of legislation that will get them to $15 minimums in a few years' time. Six states and the District of Columbia are already on that track, according to Lathrop's tally at the National Employment Law Project, and later this year, Florida will join them: Last November, more than 60% of Florida voters approved a ballot measure that will incrementally increase the minimum wage in the Sunshine State to $15 an hour by 2026.
Though Florida is an increasingly reliable red state that broke for President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, Lathrop was not surprised the minimum wage referendum on the same ballot succeeded.
"When you put the minimum wage on the ballot," Lathrop explains, "almost always, you'll see voters approve the higher wage."
Some 70 million workers would benefit by increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, according to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office. Despite increased support, however, an increase is far from a done deal.
While Florida's referendum was a win for the wider movement, it's unlikely to sway most of its neighbors that rely on the federal statute to set their own floors, says Glenn Spencer, a senior vice president who works on employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Video by Mariam Abdallah
Moderate Democrats in the House who previously voted for the $15 increase in 2019 might also rethink their support now that such a measure is more likely to become law.
In 2019, they "could vote for $15 in the House, and it wasn't that big a deal," Spencer explains, "because [they] knew the Senate was not going to pass it, and the president probably would have vetoed it anyway, so it was basically a free vote."
Now Democrats' control of the Senate hinges on a tie-breaking vote from Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
"There are some Democrats who are a little bit more moderate that may not want to go all the way to $15 or may want to put some conditions on it," before sending it to the upper chamber, Spencer explains. Once those conditions are in, "there's really no telling at [that] point what the Senate does with it."
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