Thrown Overboard

So Congress has acted, approving the president’s massive Covid relief package. Help is on the way—in a dizzying array of different forms—for millions of Americans. But not for some who need help the most.

A long overdue pay raise for low-wage workers became a casualty of congressional deal making. It’s hard to imagine anyone more deserving of help than frontline workers paid at or near the minimum wage. The work they do can’t be done from the safety of their homes. They may be invisible to those in power, but they are not hard to spot. They are serving customers, stocking shelves, cleaning public restrooms, caring for the elderly and the disabled, putting their health at risk to keep businesses and public services going during the pandemic…they are the very definition of essential workers.

It’s been a dozen years since the federal minimum wage was last increased. The U.S. has never gone longer without raising the federal wage floor in the eight-decade-old law’s history. Those working for the minimum wage today are living below the poverty line.

When the Covid relief bill was passed by the House, it included a series of gradual increases in the minimum wage over five years to eventually bring it to $15 an hour by 2025. Congress was using a process called budget reconciliation to act on the bill, and when the House-passed bill went to the Senate, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that increasing the minimum wage was not budget related and not relevant to pandemic relief.

It is absurdly anti-democratic that the parliamentarian, a Senate staffer elected by no one, can singlehandedly prevent a wage increase for 32 million workers. And it’s pathetic that so many elected representatives of the people were willing to surrender their authority, abdicate responsibility and allow the staffer to do that.

Increasing the minimum wage would unquestionably increase payroll tax collections. And by boosting millions of workers out of poverty, they would no longer need public assistance, saving taxpayers billions of dollars. It’s preposterous to rule that raising the wage floor does not have budgetary implications and shouldn’t be included in a budget reconciliation measure dealing with Covid relief when low-wage workers have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. But that’s what the parliamentarian ruled, despite the fact that opening the arctic to oil drilling was previously allowed under budget reconciliation. So was eliminating penalties under the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance mandate.

When moments of truth arrive, priorities are revealed. When there’s only so much room in the lifeboat, it’s been low-wage workers who get thrown overboard. The federal minimum wage law is more than 80 years old. In the entire history of the law, only two presidents have failed to sign into law an increase in the wage floor during their time in office. Obama and Trump. And Obama was in office twice as long as Trump. What happened with the Covid relief bill is a continuation of what’s been going on for quite some time. Only so much room in the lifeboat. Something has to go. Increasing the minimum wage got sacrificed. Again.

Mike McCabe

March 11, 2021