Why the Fight for 15 is a Civil and Human Rights Issue

By Hope Kroll, a Spring 2016 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

In 2012, fast food workers in New York City kicked off the national “Fight for 15” movement, demanding a living wage of $15 an hour. The movement contributed to the national debate around economic inequality in the United States that was sparked by Occupy Wall Street the year before. Incremental increases to the minimum wage in some states and counties typically have not reached $15 – until now.

In March, Gov. Jerry Brown of California and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York agreed to raise their respective states’ minimum wages to $15 over the next few years. It cannot be overstated what a significant development the decision to raise the minimum wage in both California and New York is for the “Fight for 15” and ongoing battles in states and localities to raise the local minimum wage. These announcements came at a time when people all over the country are asking why the federal minimum wage hasn’t increased since 2009, when it went from $5.15 to the current $7.25 an hour. Brown and Cuomo deserve credit for their leadership on this issue.

The implementation phases for both California and New York’s minimum wage increases differ in a handful of ways. According to Brown’s plan, California’s minimum wage will rise to $10.50 in 2017, $11 in 2018, and $1 every following January until 2022 unless there is evidence suggesting that the state’s economy is being harmed or approaching recession. Otherwise, the minimum wage will increase with inflation each year thereafter. The University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education projected that pay would rise for 5.6 million Californians by an average of 24 percent, which includes the 2.2 million workers currently earning the minimum wage. The study also found that retail and restaurant workers alone accounted for a third of those who would be affected by the $15 minimum wage increase in California.

In comparison, Cuomo’s plan came out of a budgetary agreement to raise the minimum wage to $15 by the end of 2018 for those living in New York City. The minimum wage in Long Island and Westchester County is only set to increase to $12.50 by 2021 and may gradually rise to $15 conditionally in the future. The New York Times reports that the governor’s office will conduct a state labor and budget analysis to examine the economic impact of the increase by 2019 and decide whether or not increasing the minimum wage to $15 statewide is feasible. This decision will impact 3.16 million workers or 36.6 percent of the statewide workforce who currently earn the minimum wage, including 79.6 percent of workers in the restaurant industry according to another Berkeley study.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states and Washington, D.C. have minimum wages above the federal minimum. Five states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee, have no state minimum wage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 3 million people were paid the minimum wage or less on an hourly basis in 2014, including in estimated 1.3 million people who earned exactly the minimum wage and another 1.7 million working people who earned even less than the minimum wage.

Last October, The Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality released a report on the current state of the minimum wage and found that, “Today, a full-time, year-round worker paid the minimum wage would earn just $15,080 a year. That amount falls under the poverty line for a family of two and is far below the minimum wage’s inflation-adjusted 1968 historical peak of $20,278 (2015 dollars).”

Raising the minimum wage would disproportionately impact people of color, women, LGBT individuals, and other disadvantaged groups. According to the same report by The Education Fund and Georgetown, 21 percent of all White working people are estimated to benefit from an increase in the federal minimum wage, compared to 35 percent of all African-American working people and 38 percent of all Hispanic working people. Additionally, a full-time working person with disabilities earns 12 percent less than their counterparts without disabilities, and faces more than double the poverty rate.

Increasing the minimum wage would clearly benefit historically marginalized communities, and the wage hikes in places like California and New York are good starts. But what the Fight for 15 really shows is a national interest in economic justice, and only an increase at the federal level will help working people – nationally – who truly need it most.