Seth Harris, acting U.S. secretary of labor, knows he's in for a fight in pushing for a higher minimum wage.
Critics argue that it will kill jobs, that only teenagers earn the minimum wage or that low-wage workers will spend the extra cash on frivolous things, he said.
But Harris insists that America's middle class will support it if they hear the stories of those low-income wage-earners. Across the country, 19 states including Florida have bumped their minimum wage above the federal $7.25 level.
"The message just hasn't gotten through to Washington," he said.
Harris was in Tampa on Wednesday to tout President Barack Obama's plan for a $9-an-hour minimum wage, which needs congressional support to become law. During an hourlong forum at the Chloe Coney Urban Enterprise Center on Hillsborough Avenue, he heard from a dozen residents who either earn the minimum wage or close to it.
Alekos Zambrano, 22, was among those who detailed hardships getting to and from work because they can't afford a car. Zambrano walks or rides a bicycle from his home near Columbus Avenue to a trendy downtown Tampa cafe.
He earns $8 an hour, barely above Florida's inflation-pegged minimum wage of $7.79.
"In my neighborhood, everyone's a minimum-wage worker," he says.
The most riveting testimony came from Gail Jones, a 35-year-old woman raising a special-needs daughter on a minimum-wage mall job.
She could move to a higher-paying job, but she's loyal to her employer because the company allows her to leave frequently to tend to her 7-year-old. Jones' husband was shot to death two years ago.
Some say only teens make minimum wage, she said, "but I'm a single mother on minimum wage raising a daughter with challenges."
Harris and his team from the Department of Labor largely were preaching to the choir Wednesday. No one spoke out against raising the minimum wage, and many in the audience were advocates for either low-income or progressive causes.
However, Harris argued that a $9 minimum wage would help everyone, causing a bump in wages across the country, under the principle that a rising tide lifts all boats. All told, about 15 million people would be affected by the new wage, if enacted, including 675,000 Floridians, he said.
"I'm hoping that you all leave here as advocates for the president's proposal," he told the small crowd.
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